IT really matters to France and to Europe -- and, indeed, to the world -- who wins the French presidential election that kicks off today. Honestly, I've been taking it very seriously. But being a strong believer in getting what laughs I can as I trudge through life, I've been enjoying the gossip and the nonsense too.
How can one not revel in the exotic creature that is Nicolas Paul Stephane Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa, affectionately -- as well as disparagingly -- known as Sarko? The son of a Hungarian aristocrat and a mother who was half French-Catholic and half Greek-Jewish, his virtual abandonment by his father and the ridicule he attracted for being only 5ft 5in helped to make him ferociously ambitious. At a university notorious for its left-wing students, Sarkozy followed his Gaullist French grandfather's lead and became a right-wing activist. As a lawyer, he was highly prized by Silvio Berlusconi.
How could one not be titillated by his private life? In 1984, as mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, Sarko officiated at the marriage to a popular TV presenter, Cecilia Maria Sara Isabel Ciganer-Albeniz, daughter of a Moldovan, Jewish immigrant father and a Spanish-Belgian mother, 5ft 10in and beautiful.
Sarko had married in 1982. When he met Cecilia again in 1987, he had two sons and she had two daughters. They were both afflicted, he would explain, by a coup de foudre (bolt of lightning), and abandoned their spouses, marrying in 1996 when his divorce finally came through. They have a son. Cecilia, a gifted pianist-turned-lawyer and activist for women's rights, worked closely with Sarko in political jobs, in 2005 becoming chief of staff of the UMP, the centre-right party he headed.
Unfortunately, that same year Cecilia had another coup de foudre and ran away with Richard Attias, a mega-rich Moroccan, French-educated, US-based businessman. She returned to Sarko -- who had been having an affair with a political journalist -- in early 2006 and although she disappeared from time to time for weeks, she half-heartedly helped him win the 2007 presidential election. (While the French don't care much what presidents get up to sexually, they do demand the presence of a First Lady.) However, they divorced within six months and she married Attias.
President Sarko played the field for a few weeks before, in November, having another coup de foudre when he met Italian-born French resident Carla Gilberta Bruni Tedeschi at dinner. They married eight weeks later. Carla, a 5ft 9in millionaire supermodel, is more exotic even than Cecilia. A successful chanteuse, her high-profile lovers include Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton. In 2001 she gave birth to a son by a French academic philosopher, a surprising happening since she had been living with his writer father.
Sarko doesn't do culture, and Carla is a left-wing, cultivated intellectual, but she likes powerful men, allegedly once having told a friend that she wanted "a man with nuclear power". Sarko was so love-struck that he started reading good books, watching art-house films and moving leftwards politically: famously, during an audience with the Pope, he sent his wife text messages.
The French were delighted for a while by the exquisitely turned-out First Lady, but as the economic crisis developed, there was much sneering about Sarko's bling and her extravagance. To help him, Carla, now the mother of his only daughter, has had a frump-over. Her place on Vanity Fair's 2011 International Best-dressed List is so yesterday. Today, she wears loose sweaters and talks about herself and Sarko as "modest people".
Nasty people doubt that Carla will stay with Sarko if he loses. He began the election campaign with little hope of winning, but desperation has been his inspiration, and he's now in with a real chance. It's a big help that his chief rival, Francois Hollande, seems devoid of any personality whatsoever.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who has plenty, was to be the candidate for the Socialist Party, but his arrest in New York for an alleged sexual assault on a maid shone the light on a sex life so depraved it shocked even the French.
The most interesting thing about Hollande is that for three decades he was with Segolene Royal, with whom he has four children. In 2007, when he was first secretary of the Socialist Party, she was the candidate who lost to Sarko. Shortly afterwards, they announced their separation and it emerged that he was in a relationship with Valerie Trierweiler, a French journalist. Very late in the day, Segolene has publicly forgiven Hollande and is backing him in the election.
The main issues are unemployment, the national debt, education, immigration and Islamic terrorism. In the end, the French have to decide with whom they feel safest. What is new is that a country that has always frowned on invasions of privacy is now riveted by the sex lives of their leading politicians.