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First lady status, in doubt in France, hardly universal despite official title, office

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    FILE - In this Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands by his wife Sara as she casts her ballot at a polling station in Jerusalem. Netanyahu's wife Sara has come under tons of heat for her conduct as first lady, from extravagant expenses to questionable wardrobe choices to her involvement in the politics of her husband's office. Sara is Netanyahu's third wife. France’s unmarried president - and the reported love triangle involving the companion he installed into the Elysee palace and a French actress supposedly down the street - have led the country into a delicate debate over whether it needs a first lady at all. Many countries lack official status for the spouse or companion of a leader, turning up some complicated situations, even when the public is willing to turn a blind eye. (AP Photo/Uriel Sinai, File) (The Associated Press)

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    FILE - In this Oct. 27, 1993 file photo, then First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton applauds after President Clinton spoke in Statuary Hall on Capitol Hill, Washington. A court battle over the role of Hillary Rodham Clinton in a health care task force affirmed the status of First Lady as official in the United States, when a federal appeals panel ruled in 1993 that the president’s spouse is “a de facto officer or employee” of the government. France’s unmarried president - and the reported love triangle involving the companion he installed into the Elysee palace and a French actress supposedly down the street - have led the country into a delicate debate over whether it needs a first lady at all. Many countries lack official status for the spouse or companion of a leader, turning up some complicated situations, even when the public is willing to turn a blind eye. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook, File) (The Associated Press)

France's unmarried president — and the reported love triangle involving the companion he installed in the Elysee palace and a French actress supposedly down the street — have led the country into a delicate debate over whether it needs a first lady at all. Many countries lack official status for the spouse or companion of a leader, turning up some complicated situations, even when the public is willing to turn a blind eye.

"As he tries to get this behind him, it'll stay in the news," said Robert Watson, a professor at Lynn University, who has written extensively about U.S. presidents and their personal issues, notably in "Affairs of State: The Untold History of Presidential Love, Sex, and Scandal."

UNITED STATES

A court battle over the role of Hillary Rodham Clinton in a health care task force while her husband Bill was president affirmed the status of First Lady as official in the United States, when a federal appeals panel ruled in 1993 that the president's spouse is "a de facto officer or employee" of the government. Like Clinton, Michelle Obama had her own career as a lawyer before her husband was elected president, but gave it up upon moving into the White House.

GERMANY

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's husband, chemistry professor Joachim Sauer, keeps a low public profile. He occasionally accompanies Merkel on official trips, but stayed away from her election and swearing-in at the beginning of all her three terms. The rarity of his public appearances at one point earned him the nickname in German media of "the phantom of the opera" — a reference to the fact that he accompanies the chancellor to the Bayreuth opera festival every year. The couple live quietly in a Berlin apartment.

Germany also has a president, Joachim Gauck, who has lived with his first lady Daniela Schadt since 2000. They have never married and Schadt said in an interview last year that "since the family can live with it and we can live with it, I think we can leave it that way." Gauck and his first wife have never divorced.

BENELUX

The elected leaders are unmarried in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, which all have royal families and the trappings of monarchy that largely dispense with protocol issues. The prime ministers of both Belgium and Luxembourg are gay, one single and one in a relationship, while the prime minister of the Netherlands is a bachelor whose personal life is of marginal interest to most Dutch voters.

ARGENTINA

Cristina Fernandez was a high profile first lady during the 2003-2007 presidency of her husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner. At the time, she was serving as a senator after a long career in congress. She was known for her strong, outspoken character and she was widely believed to play a key role in her husband's decisions. They built on this partnership and when she came into power in 2007 many believed that they would aim to take turns at the presidency every four years. Kirchner became her top political and economic adviser until his death in October 2010.

KENYA

In March 2009, then-President Mwai Kibaki announced a last-minute, rare national news conference. Much of the nation came to a standstill. Anxiety turned to bewilderment when Kibaki, accompanied by his fuming wife, went on the air: "You and I know everybody else knows that I am married and I have only one wife but the media keeps repeating that I have another wife or wives. I want to make it very clear that I have one wife, Lucy that is here, and I do not have any other." The other woman in question, Mary Wambui, is now a member of parliament. She had been seen being escorted by presidential security, and to this day there has been no public explanation of her role in the first family.

ISRAEL

Benjamin Netanyahu's wife Sara has come under tons of heat for her conduct as first lady, from extravagant expenses to questionable wardrobe choices to her involvement in the politics of her husband's office.

In 2010, she sued an Israeli newspaper for libel and defamation of character, claiming it was "maliciously trying to humiliate" her. A pair of Israeli dailies reported that Mrs. Netanyahu fired a 70-year-old gardener at the prime minister's official residence. A week earlier a former Netanyahu family housekeeper sued Sara Netanyahu in an Israeli labor court for allegedly withholding wages, unfair working conditions and verbal abuse.

Sara is Netanyahu's third wife. Prior to becoming prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu admitted to having an extramarital affair. He came forth with the admission after he said opponents were trying to blackmail him.

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Follow Lori Hinnant at: https://twitter.com/lhinnant