- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 28, 2005

PARIS — Reports that former President Francois Mitterrand was having a love affair served only to enhance his popular image. But new revelations of a reputed affair by the wife of Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy are threatening the prospects of France’s fastest-rising political star.

The scandal broke with the publication by Paris-Match of photographs showing Cecilia Sarkozy, 47, holding hands at a busy sidewalk cafe with a denim-clad political organizer named Richard Attias.

There also was a shot of them sightseeing in New York, accompanied by an article detailing the couple’s various public appearances during the past few months.

Mr. Sarkozy, the 50-year-old leader of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, is thought to be considering a divorce to head off the damage to his reputation.

Although the French are famously tolerant of male politicians having affairs, they are unlikely to be as sympathetic toward a cuckolded husband.

“Nearly all of our successful male politicians have a history of affairs and divorces,” said one political commentator. “Francois Mitterrand had a long-standing mistress, and this was seen as evidence of his masculinity — his virility, if you like.

“For Sarkozy, it’s the very opposite.”

The damage has been compounded by the embarrassingly public nature of the purported affair.

The reputed relationship is thought to have started in the autumn, after the Moroccan-born Mr. Attias, 45, staged an American-style convention to anoint Mr. Sarkozy as president of the UMP, which was founded by President Jacques Chirac.

Mrs. Sarkozy subsequently appeared at Mr. Attias’ side in May, at a World Economic Forum meeting in Jordan, which he also helped organize.

Since then, Mr. Attias, who has a 15-year-old daughter from his first marriage, has had his contract to organize UMP events terminated.

In July, Mrs. Sarkozy and Mr. Attias reportedly were seen on vacation in Cannes, where they are said to have hired a convertible car, walked to the supermarket to do their shopping and dined in some of the city’s most prestigious restaurants.

Later, they were said to have been spotted sightseeing in New York and Paris.

Sources in Mr. Sarkozy’s entourage have blamed Mr. Chirac’s aides for spreading rumors to undermine Mr. Sarkozy, who hopes to challenge Mr. Chirac for the presidency in 2007.

Although Mr. Sarkozy’s marital troubles already were public knowledge — the interior minister admitted to the press in May that he had given himself 100 days to save his marriage — publication of the photographs has raised suspicions of a political dirty-tricks campaign.

Mr. Sarkozy has been in open mutiny against Mr. Chirac for the past three years and has told journalists and colleagues that he suspects Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister and a Chirac protege, of wanting to undermine his growing popularity.

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