Lesley Stahl Goes Personal on Sarkozy: Did Your Wife Leave You?

CBS’s 60 Minutes repeatedly promoted in its ads for the October 28 program how Lesley Stahl pressed French president Nicholas Sarkozy into tearing off his microphone and walking out as she quizzed him about how "Paris was buzzing with rumors" about whether his wife Cecelia had left him again. This is hardly the dainty 60 Minutes style that Steve Kroft used asking Bill and Hillary Clinton about marital "mistakes" in 1992. By asking pointed personal questions about a collapsing marriage, CBS wanted viewers to know that Sarkozy was explosive, "tempestuous," and perhaps too pro-American for their tastes. Stahl asked about his election-night acceptance speech: "Why did he go that far as to mention how much he likes America on that occasion?"

Start with how Stahl played up the troubles between Sarkozy and his spouse:

STAHL: With his poll numbers still relatively high, Sarkozy's one big problem was his wife and that his private life had become a public soap opera. He had brought Cecilia into his career. When he was Interior Minister, she had an office next to his, controlling his schedule and his diet. But they had a tempestuous relationship. Two years ago, she left him for another man. They were photographed together in New York. But Sarkozy talked her into coming back to him. After the election, he sent her on a diplomatic mission to Libya, where she helped negotiate the release of five Bulgarian nurses charged with murder. But when the Bulgarians gave the Sarkozys a medal of honor in early October, Cecilia was a no-show. The day we interviewed him, Paris was buzzing with rumors that she had left him again. But ask him about it? "How dare you?!" Since we've been here, it seems that every day, we're hearing another story about your wife. What's going on?

SARKOZY (translated ): If I had something to say about Cecilia, I would certainly not do so here.

STAHL: But there's a great mystery. Everybody's asking. Even your press secretary was asked at the briefing today. No comment?

SARKOZY (translated ): He was quite right to make no comment. And no comment. Thank you.

STAHL: Sarkozy decided the interview was over... And off he went with the question about his wife left hanging. Two weeks later, the Elysee announced the Sarkozys were divorced, just like that-- a first for a French president. Since then, no evidence that the end of Cecilia is affecting his passion and drive in his job. As it was growing up, every day for Sarkozy is still a battle. Ask him a question and you could get a fight, as we did when we asked why he's on French television all the time. The question is, over-exposure?

SARKOZY (translated ): And you, why did you insist so much that I appear on television? Would 60 Minutes be after me if I was of no interest?

STAHL: Touche. Touche.

Can Stahl understand how she might look "tempestuous" if someone interviewed her in this fashion? Say, when her memoir Reporting Live came out? What if people pressed her about how she and her husband lived together in Washington for quite a while before getting married (quite European), or her husband’s struggle with depression, or her odd habit of always calling her mother "Dolly"? I’m not saying those questions wouldn’t be rude. But that’s the kind of pointed personal question she was pressing on Sarkozy. She can dish it out, but could she take it? Without being "tempestuous"?

Stahl began the interview by announcing her two main Sarkozy themes, the crumbling marriage and the ostentatious pro-American attitudes.

LESLEY STAHL: "When Nicolas Sarkozy, France's new president, visits the White House next week, it'll symbolize how much French-American relations have improved since the war in Iraq. Like most of the French, Sarkozy opposes the war, but he's a fan of almost everything else American -- from Hollywood movies to the American work ethic. On issue after issue, from Iran, to Israel, to the war on terrorism, he sides with U.S. policy. He is so pro-U.S., the French call him "Sarko the American."

The son of an immigrant from Hungary, Nicolas Sarkozy is a real departure from past French presidents. He's prone to flashes of quick temper, and as of last week, he's divorced. He's young, high-energy, and thoroughly intriguing. When Nicolas Sarkozy became president in May, at 52, he waved goodbye to the old political order and started his own. The inauguration was a dazzling beginning after a tough election in which Sarkozy asked the French people for a mandate for radical change and got it. Sarkozy showed off his family, happy with comparisons to the Kennedys -- his glamorous wife, Cecilia, a former model; her two daughters and his two sons from previous marriages; and their own ten-year-old, Louis."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite.

STAHL: Sarkozy's affection for his wife was evident. The five months since then have been a whirlwind of made-for-TV appearances -- fiery speeches, a drop-in at a mosque, and meetings with a parade of world leaders. Sarkozy is so omnipresent, his countrymen have started calling him "Super Sarko," the "Energizer President." His style is something the French aren't used to, plunging into crowds and glad-handing. When I first met him for a quick, impromptu conversation on his presidential airplane, he was in a playful mood, grabbing my notes.

SARKOZY: Egalite.

STAHL: ...Which he said would put us on an equal footing. But he refused to wear a microphone, which made the audio difficult. They call you "Sarko the American." Why?

SARKOZY: Because I love America. I want to be friend of America.

STAHL: But the name?

SARKOZY: I am proud of this nickname. J'aime la musique Americaine.

STAHL: You like our music?

SARKOZY: Elvis Presley, of course.

STAHL: This story will introduce you to the American people. What do you most want them to know about you?

SARKOZY ( translated ): I want the Americans to know that they can count on us. But at the same time, we want to be free to disagree.

STAHL: U.S.-French relations have been sour for decades. But in 2003, disagreement over the war in Iraq plunged them to a new low, when then-president Jacques Chirac openly opposed the Bush Administration. Here in the U.S., All things French were denigrated. Their cars were smashed, their wine was dumped, their fries renamed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Freedom fries.

JEAN DAVID LEVITTE: It became very heated, unpleasant at times.

STAHL: Jean David Levitte, France's Ambassador to Washington at the time, and now Sarkozy's National Security Adviser, told us repairing the U.S. relationship is a top Sarkozy priority. He even mentioned it in his acceptance speech the night he was elected president. Why did he go that far as to mention how much he likes America on that occasion?

LEVITTE: Well, because he thinks it's important. He thinks that in his campaign he had to say to the French people, "Beware. If you elect me, I will implement this program." And part of the program is to rebuild strong, good, friendly relations with the U.S. And I think he's succeeding magnificently.

STAHL: To underscore his message, Sarkozy went so far as to spend his first vacation as President of France on a lake in New Hampshire with his family. The Bushes, nearby in Kennebunkport, invited them over for hot dogs, hamburgers and a little Franco-American bonding. But Sarkozy's personal life and his own temperament began to intrude. His wife, Cecilia, created an embarrassing situation when she snubbed the Bushes by pulling out of the event at the last minute. Back in New Hampshire, Sarkozy had lost his temper at a photographer who had followed him out onto the lake. It turns out France's new president has a habit of letting his anger loose, as we found out as we were setting up for an interview at the Elysee Palace. He started berating his press secretary, calling him "an imbecile" and worse, for arranging an interview he clearly didn't want to do on a busy day.

SARKOZY: He is stupid.

STAHL: But sir, this is how...

SARKOZY: It is a big mistake.

STAHL: This is what the public... the American people are going to see.

SARKOZY: Okay. ( Translated ): "I don't have the time. I have a big job to do. I have a schedule. Very busy. Very busy.

STAHL: Okay, sir, I know you're angry...

SARKOZY ( translated ): No, I'm not angry, I'm in a hurry. Okay. I'm going to do my job. Don't worry.

STAHL: Okay, all right, all right.

SARKOZY: Quel imbecile!

Perhaps it’s quite natural for anyone to be annoyed that they’d been scheduled to be probed by an annoying American TV reporter who thinks you’re too cozy with America and have an anger-management problem.

It should be said that CBS’s sparse coverage of the French election campaign showed a bit more sympathy for the Socialist candidate, Segolene Royal. Here’s a snippet of CBS’s Sheila MacVicar on the November 19, 2006 Evening News:

The 53-year-old mother of four, now age 13 to 20, has never married her long-term partner. In France, that's not a liability. In the past, French politician's private lives have mostly been off-limits. But this summer, paparazzi photos showed her on the beach. The admiring comments that followed helped to spur voter interest. Polls here show that voters are fed up, that they want a break with the politics of the past. Because she's a woman, Royal seems to embody that change. But as voters get to know her and her policies better, will that be enough? Her right-wing opponent will very likely be France's current minister of the interior, a politician known for harsh language and a firm fist. It's a contest that is likely to be very bruising. Sheila MacVicar, CBS News, Paris.

When Sarkozy was elected on May 7, 2007, the CBS Evening News again played up the sex angle:

KATIE COURIC: Elsewhere in Europe, France is still buzzing tonight over its presidential election. Nicolas Sarkozy won a race that featured tales of extramarital affairs and children born out of wedlock. Americans might be surprised to learn that apparently none of that was important to the voters. Our senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield tells us what they did care about.

JEFF GREENFIELD: The first woman with a chance at the presidency who never married the father of her four children and who outdueled him for her party's nomination. The conservative candidate, whose mistresses are almost as well known as the lovers of his wife, a wife who hints she may not even move into the presidential residence. Of course, this isn't America, it's France...Where 52-year-old Nicolas Sarkozy lead his conservative party to a solid seven point victory over 53-year-old Segolene Royal. Why did this all this matter so little? Well, extracurricular sex is almost part of a French politician's resume.

PS: Another sign of CBS dismay with the election came on the morning of May 7, when MacVicar concluded that Sarkozy’s win with 53 percent of the vote hardly meant he had the "hearts" of France:

As they celebrated in Paris, the new president made his way to the great square in the heart of the city. He has won this election, but not yet the hearts of the French. Some of those who detest him and his politics clashed with police. And if he is to be truly inclusive, those are the people he must reach. Sheila MacVicar, CBS News, London.

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