Sunday, January 14, 2007

PARIS — Nicolas Sarkozy is deploying a secret weapon in his battle to defeat Segolene Royal in the French presidential race — his once-estranged wife.

As the ambitious interior minister received the formal nomination of the conservative Union for a Popular Movement yesterday, it seems that Cecilia Sarkozy is adding a woman’s touch to his campaign.

With 100 days to go before the first round of voting, she is advising him on the delicate question of how to confront and score points against his female socialist rival without appearing too macho and thus alienating female voters.

Although not part of Mr. Sarkozy’s official election team, Mrs. Sarkozy, who was reunited with her husband a year ago after leaving him for another man, is said to be “a constant force in the background.”

Opinion polls put the candidates neck and neck. Faced with the likelihood of a duel between “Sego” and “Sarko” in the second round of voting in May, Mrs. Sarkozy’s influence is seen as vital.

“Cecilia has known how he works for the past 20 years. She reassures him and not only advises him on communication matters but on fundamental questions,” said Roger Karoutchi, a French member of the Senate and a Sarkozy supporter.

“Together they watch [Miss] Royal’s television appearances closely to see how she behaves. Cecilia often tells him to take care when debating with a woman because it’s not so easy to make this or that remark.”

For the first time, French voters are being given the chance to elect a female president. Aware of the political novelty value represented by Miss Royal, a chic and glamorous mother of four, Mr. Sarkozy knows that the women’s vote will be crucial.

Mr. Sarkozy, 51, thinks political debates should have the aggression of a boxing ring. His friend and junior government colleague Bruce Hortefeux, 48, said Mr. Sarkozy — who can be quick-tempered — might struggle to strike the right balance between being firm and appearing downright rude. “In politics, Nicolas doesn’t like the idea of confronting a woman,” he said.

Denis Muzet, the director of l’Institut Mediascopie, which studies the effect of communications, said Mr. Sarkozy might try to play on the “fragility” of having a female leader.

“This will be extremely difficult and delicate to do, however. The slightest suggestion of aggression is likely to turn against him. The French prefer a respectful, calm debate,” he said.

Mr. and Mrs. Sarkozy split in 2005 when Mrs. Sarkozy, a 48-year-old Sorbonne-educated former model, left her husband and was photographed in New York with a new companion. At the time, she was reputed to have said she could not face being France’s first lady.

There was a much-publicized kiss-and-makeup several months later, but the marriage reportedly continued to be shaky for several weeks.

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