Not in My White House: French-Style Divorce Unthinkable Here

Even with a high divorce rate, Americans hold the presidency as sacrosanct.

January 8, 2009, 12:10 AM

Oct. 19, 2007 — -- President Nicolas Sarkozy gave a French kiss-off this week to his 11-year marriage with wife Cecilia, who talked openly to the media about her affair that preceded the split.

It's a situation that political observers say would be unthinkable for a U.S. president.

Divorce, American-style, may be tolerated for senators and presidential contenders, but not for the leader of the free world.

Most observers say Sarkozy will survive the divorce politically, and polls show a vast majority of French citizens couldn't care less about the divorce.

In the United States, only once in American history did divorce touch a sitting president. In the early 1800s, political enemies of Andrew Jackson revealed that his wife's previous divorce had never actually been finalized, causing a furor.

Today, with a national divorce rate that approaches 45 percent, Americans still view the institution of marriage as sacrosanct — for their sitting presidents.

"We have a problem," said Catherine Allgor, political scientist at the University of California Riverside and an expert on first ladies. "We expect our leaders not to live the lives we do."

"We know a lot of people who are divorced, we ourselves are divorced, but when it comes to our leaders, Americans are like children and we like our big daddies," she said. "We want them to be nostalgic, old-fashioned and family oriented."

Divorce doesn't seem to be an issue for four of the presidential candidates— not even Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani, who has been married three times.

Historically, several presidents have held office sans first ladies. Former President Van Buren, a widower, had his daughter-in-law play surrogate first lady. Former President Buchanan — though he bore no resemblance to the dashing Michael Douglas in the 1995 film "The American President" — served his entire term in the White House as a bachelor.

Marriages of convenience, like that of Eleanor and former President Roosevelt, drew no barbs. Former President Cleveland raised some eyebrows when he fathered a child out of wedlock, but he was still re-elected.

Infidelity may have scarred a few reputations — like those of former President Kennedy and Wendell Wilkie — but today, even former President Clinton's political popularity still shines, despite his sexual escapades in the Oval Office with a young intern.

"He would not have survived politically if he had broken up the family," said Allgor. "He has Hillary to thank, because he would not be as popular if she had said, 'OK, I'm leaving.' She held the family together."

Democratic political consultant Bob Shrum plays down the significance of divorce, an issue that made no difference in the credibility of either former first lady Betty Ford or conservative former President Reagan — both of whom had married before.

Shrum, the author of the 2007 memoir, "No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner," worked for presidential candidates Jimmy Carter, Al Gore and, in 2004, twice-married John Kerry.

"Americans are smarter than we give them credit for," he told by telephone after leaving Paris, where transportation strikes are rocking Sarkozy's administration. "Divorce is no longer relevant."

"The party would have an interest in having the president not thrown out of office, and the other party might overplay its hand," said Shrum. "But people would judge a president on how he governs the country and not his personal life."

"There would probably be more sensationalism in the U.S. and a lot more ink spilled," he said. "But it would be difficult to remove a president simply because of divorce."

For the French public, news of the divorce is unlikely to come as a shock. Their presidents and spouses have a long tradition of leading separate lives.

Former President Francois Mitterrand not only lived apart from his wife, Danielle, but he maintained a secret second family. His mistress even turned up in public at his funeral.

"The French thought it was a bit weird, but did not get too worked up about the whole thing," said Anne-Marie Gustavson, a high school teacher who leads cultural exchanges between students at New Jersey's Peddie School and her native France. "They found it mildly amusing,"

President Jacques Chirac, who stepped down when Sarkozy was elected this year, had hinted at a number of affairs. He and his wife appeared together only at presidential functions.

The Sarkozys have had a tumultuous marriage, staying together despite public affairs and rumors of infidelity. Both have children from previous marriages.

"As far as the divorce goes, the French tend to keep private and public life more separate than in the U.S.," said Gustavson.

In contrast, Americans hold their presidents to a much higher ethical standard, according to presidential scholar Russell Riley, who teaches at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.

"The big difference between us and most European countries is that we look to the president to be a kind of moral leader," Riley said.

"There is still a stigma associated with divorce that would make it impossible for a president to withstand the terrific political consequences," he said. "It's not impeachable, but the bottom would drop out of his support."

He said Americans would also worry about distractions surrounding the divorce for the president, rather than judging the couple as a "moral failure."

"We have an idyllic notion of our political leadership," said Riley. "We prefer the ideal, and if we can't get it, there better be a good explanation."

French pollster CSA released a poll this week that found four of five French citizens consider the Sarkozy split unimportant. About 92 percent said the news had no bearing on their opinion of the president.

Cecilia Sarkozy, in an interview Thursday in L'Est Republican, even spoke openly about her 2005 affair that led to a temporary breakup with Sarkozy.

"I met someone, I fell in love, I left" the marriage, she told the newspaper.

Despite the laissez-faire attitude with which the French regard their leaders' personal lives, Sarkozy's constituents will be watching how he handles the current union crisis and other issues of import.

"Personally, I think that it is terribly difficult to live constantly in the eyes of the public, and I am not surprised nor would I think less of Sarkozy and his wife because of the divorce," said French-born Gustavson.

"But," she said, "you can be sure that I will be very critical of our president's political life if I feel that he is not serving the French people well."

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