PARIS – Presidential candidate Segolene Royal is not married, and if she wins, her romantic partner plans to scorn the trappings of life as France's "first gentleman;" he swears he will not even live in the official Elysee Palace.
Conservative contender Nicolas Sarkozy's marriage has been tabloid fodder. It was love at first sight when he fell for his second wife — at her wedding to someone else. During Sarkozy's run for the presidency, she left him for a while, and paparazzi photographed her hand-in-hand with another man.
No matter who wins the May 6 runoff, these are times of change for the dusty institutions of the French presidency. The election will shift power from 74-year-old Jacques Chirac to one of two people born after World War II.
The French seem no longer to want a father figure in the Elysee: Gallant, hand-kissing Chirac now seems old-fashioned. Royal and Sarkozy both carry iPods and won endorsements from rappers. Sarkozy, 52, jogs. Royal, 53, was photographed at the beach in a turquoise bikini.
In an image-conscious race, both have modern relationships that many voters can relate to. Cecilia Sarkozy and Royal's partner, Socialist Party boss Francois Hollande, have made clear they will not give up their dreams and happiness for the presidency, said Christine Clerc, author of a book about presidential couples, "Tigres et tigresses" (Tigers and Tigresses).
"Sacrifice is no longer in style," Clerc says.
Royal could be France's first woman president and its first unmarried leader. Already, she and Hollande are the most powerful couple in politics — raising questions about how they would juggle their roles.
Royal has said she does not consider herself bound by Hollande's policy proposals, and they publicly quarreled about a tax increase. He says he is not sure he would accept a post in her government — if she offered one.
Any presidential ambitions Hollande may have had were thwarted when polls made it clear Royal was more popular. People poke fun by calling him "Monsieur Royal," but he has kept his sense of humor.
Asked in November if he wanted the title "first gentleman," Hollande said being the Socialist leader was enough for him. He also said he would not live in the presidential palace, whether or not Royal decides to. It is unclear what their four children, born from 1984 to 1992, would decide.
In a country where the standard greeting is kisses on the cheek, Hollande and Royal were photographed shaking hands in March — a snapshot that raised eyebrows. Royal denied rumors of separation in a book of interviews released last month. "Yes, we are still together, and yes, we still live together," she said in "Maintenant" ("Now").
Royal says they did not need marriage to prove their love — a common sentiment in today's France, where nearly half of babies are born out of wedlock.
Sarkozy's relationship with his wife got off to an inauspicious start. He fell for Cecilia Ciganer Albeniz when, as the mayor of a Paris suburb, he officiated at her 1984 wedding to Jacques Martin, a TV personality, according to Catherine Nay's Sarkozy biography, "Un Pouvoir nomme desir" (A Power Named Desire).
Sarkozy was married to his first wife, Marie, at the time; the bride was pregnant with her new husband's baby. Sarkozy, smitten anyway, made sure the couples became friends.
But the friendship dissolved during a ski trip four years later, as Nay recounts. Nicolas Sarkozy's first wife, looking for her husband, purportedly found his telltale footprints in the snow — below Cecilia's window.
Nicolas and Cecilia divorced their respective spouses and married each other, having a son together in addition to children from other marriages. For several years she worked in her husband's ministries and helped organize his party rallies, a job that put her in contact with French events organizer Richard Attias.
The story of the Sarkozys' rocky marriage broke in 2005, when glamorous Mrs. Sarkozy appeared on the cover of Paris Match magazine in photos showing her strolling with Attias in Manhattan. The press chronicled the Sarkozys' separation in detail — including Mr. Sarkozy's association with a political journalist while his wife was away.
In his book, "Temoignage" (Testimony), Sarkozy said the separation was the hardest trial of his life. The saga was a sign of politicians' growing frankness about their personal lives — and voters' curiosity about them — in a country where the existence of late President Francois Mitterrand's mistress and illegitimate daughter was a secret throughout his presidency.
Since Cecilia Sarkozy's unexplained return, she has stayed behind the scenes, while rumors have swirled on the Internet about another separation. Many wondered if Nicolas Sarkozy would enter the Elysee as a single man.
Then, during Sunday's first-round presidential balloting, Cecilia put an end to the gossip — at least for now — by turning up at her husband's side.