Nicolas Sarkozy suffered the darkest day of his presidency yesterday as the Elysée Palace finally confirmed, in a series of muddled announcements, that his marriage to Cécilia, was over.
The couple have divorced "by mutual consent", the presidential palace said, suggesting that they have been officially but secretly separated since the beginning of last month.
The announcement was made in the midst of the most determined challenge so far to the President's attempts to shake up the French social and economic model.
Large parts of France ground to a standstill as transport, electricity and other public sector workers overwhelmingly supported a one-day strike to protest against reform of their special pension rights.
The Elysée Palace apparently decided a bad news day was the perfect day to announce bad news. One set of negative headlines would obliterate another.
If so, the news management backfired. Striking transport and power workers marched through Le Havre chanting: "We are like you, Cécilia. We've had enough of Nicolas."
President Sarkozy's "Black Thursday", 18 October, may go down as the day that he finally lost control of the "I'm in charge", positive news agenda that he has sought to impose since he took office five months ago.
The collapse of his marriage, after months of speculation, rumours and denials, is officially regarded, by both government and opposition, as a private and non-political event.
But his failure publicly to acknowledge a rift that now appears to go back weeks, or even months, may cause intense public annoyance. The collapse of the marriage only six months into his presidency will inevitably damage M. Sarkozy's "all conquering" public image – at a time when he already faces a stiff challenge to his authority and determination.
Strikes and marches against reform of special pension rights – a key part of the Sarkozy reform agenda – drew huge support yesterday, including almost one in eight of all rail workers. The government hinted it might be ready to make some concessions in talks next week.
Minutes after refusing to comment on renewed divorce rumours, the presidential spokesman issued a brief communiqué saying that M. and Mme Sarkozy had agreed to separate "by mutual consent".
Two hours later, another statement said the first couple had, in fact, already "divorced by mutual consent".
Le Monde said the couple had agreed, in principle, to end their 11-year marriage – and 19-year relationship – during the presidential campaign last spring, after "repeated requests" from Cécilia. The divorce papers had been drawn up "months ago" but the procedures were halted before the election, the newspaper said.
The reasons for the abrupt collapse of the Sarkozy marriage are unclear. The couple split for 10 months in 2005, after Mme Sarkozy began a relationship with another man. They were reconciled in early 2006, only to quarrel bitterly – for reasons that have never been explained.
Some friends suggest that the independent-minded Mme Sarkozy found the role of candidate's wife insufferable. Others hinted there was a more dramatic explanation. The couple appeared to patch up their differences a second time after President Sarkozy was elected in May.
Mme Sarkozy, 49, even agreed to take part in the controversial negotiations in July to release Bulgarian nurses held prisoner in Libya. Her image as a "reluctant first lady" was further muddled by reports that she had heavily influenced the choice of many of her husband's closest advisers.
Since mid-July, Mme Sarkozy has vanished from the public radar. She made a series of spectacular and embarrassing non-appearances, including a failure to turn up at a hot-dog picnic with George Bush and family in Maine in August. One person who knows the couple well suggested yesterday that they have a "creative-destructive, love-hate" relationship. "He needs her but she detests the idea of just being the 'wife of' someone. The more powerful he becomes, the more she detests it," the friend said.
The President's friends find Mme Sarkozy's attitude odd. For years, she was an influential force in her husband's rise to power, acting as political adviser and fixer as well as wife and mother of their 10-year-old son (and four grown-up children from previous marriages).