PARIS: On the night of May 16, 2007, newly elected French president Nicolas Sarkozy was in Place de la Concorde, Paris, celebrating his victory. But where was his wife, Cecilia, many people wondered?
She did not join him until 11 p.m. when, urged by her daughter, Jeanne-Marie, she finally appeared alongside her husband. As the crowd roared and rejoiced, Cecilia’s sad expression sparked rumors that all was not well with the marriage.
The rumors were confirmed in October when the Sarkozys announced their divorce. The following March, the former Cecilia Sarkozy married Richard Attias, a Moroccan businessman and events producer who is currently working with the Saudi authorities.
“Richard is spending a lot of time in Saudi Arabia, where he is working on the organization of the G20, which is to be held in the country in November,” said Cecilia Attias, who often accompanies her husband when he visits the country. “He has also worked with the Kingdom to set up the global Future Investment Initiative forum in Riyadh.
“I have learned a great deal about Saudi Arabia and become very familiar with it after visiting many times. It is a country that has changed a great deal since Prince Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince. The country is in a real evolution. There is much that has changed and there are many things that still need to change. The country has evolved very rapidly.”
Attias is the granddaughter of Catalan composer, Isaac Albeniz. In July 2007, she helped free five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who had spent years on death row after allegedly being tortured into confessing they infected Libyan babies with the HIV virus. She visited Tripoli twice to meet Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and negotiate their release.
After her split from Sarkozy, she moved to the US with their 10-year-old son, Louis Nicolas Sarkozy, and her daughters Jeanne-Marie and Judith from her marriage to French TV star Jacques Martin. In October last year, Attias published “Agree to Disagree,” a book she wrote with Louis, who attended a military school in the US and is studying for a degree in philosophy and history at NYU. In a series of letters, mother and son set out to discover each other anew. With no holds barred they discuss a range of hot topics, from education to religion, feminism to climate change. “Who am I apart from being an ex-first lady who made headlines in France?” Attias asks herself in the book.
“For me, politics is a profession like any other and I place it at the top of the ladder because it is politics that governs and manages all aspects of our daily lives,” she said when I asked about her decision to give up the role of first lady, and all that went with it. “Therefore I have great respect for public affairs, for the Republic, and for the policies used to implement the rules of the Republic.
“Besides that, I am an ordinary woman, who was married to Nicolas for 25 years, during which we had a son. I left to rebuild my life on the other side of the Atlantic. I have never been elected, nor have I, myself, ever been in politics. I was by the side of a politician but I do not have a personal voice that makes me different. I am an ordinary person.”
An ordinary person perhaps, but it is nevertheless rather extraordinary for the wife of a president to leave her husband.
“The extraordinary side comes from media exposure but the act itself was ordinary: A couple separates like thousands of other couples,” Attias said. “The only thing was that he was president and people had trouble understanding that. In life many people fight for power and money, and when you reject them people do not understand this.”
What about the timing of their split, so soon after his election victory? Why not separate before then?
“On one hand, he was the father of our son and he was my husband for a long time,” said Attias. “It is not easy to break up a family. For me, it was a heartbreaker and, in addition, I have a lot of respect, tenderness and affection for Nicolas. Leaving him at the hardest moment of his life was incredibly difficult.
“I left once before and when I came back, before he was president, it was really for him, for us, and not to help him get elected. I realized when he was president that once a vase is broken, you cannot put the pieces back together; there are deep breaks and I could not play a role that is not true. I am too faithful and righteous.”
More than a decade after their divorce, the couple’s relationship remains amicable, according to Attias.
“Everything is going very well,” she said. “We have a son in common and we shared 25 years so we are not distant from each other. We meet and I have lunch with Richard and Nicolas. We see each other often and ... Nicolas has rebuilt his life; he has a wonderful little girl (nine-year-old Giulia, with wife Carla Bruni).”
Given her own experience of politics, would she encourage her son to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a politician? She notes that Louis has talent, charisma and a very punchy style that wins people over. He also believes in important fundamental values and will defend what is good and right, which are all fine political qualities, she adds, “but I will not push him into politics. He writes articles and reads a lot and he will choose his own path.”
And what is her opinion of incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron? He is “an extremely bright and well-educated man,” according to Attias.
“I met his wife, Brigitte, and I like her very much; she is absolutely likable,” she added. “Neither of them, however, have any political background or experience and that makes things very hard.”