How romantic France fell for le grand divorce

The London Evening Standard - 13 November 2009

Just what has happened to love’s Gallic dream? Paris is traditionally associated with a view of love as deep and eternal as the Seine but this week it has been hosting France’s first Divorce Fair.

Rather than championing Paris’s impossibly romantic painters and poets, the so-called “New Start” trade show comprised 60 stands and rooms hosting discussions on gloomy subjects such as: “Separation: What does a solicitor do?”

Smiling consultants, many from British firms, were only too happy to answer such questions, making it clear that if love don’t come easy then broken love don’t come cheap.

The uncomfortable truth is that we French (a predominantly conservative, rural, Roman Catholic people, remember) can no longer afford to shy away from such themes.

Our divorce rate now stands at some 130,000 a year, with one in two marriages ending in litigation. Such figures are only slightly lower than in Britain, where “footballer’s wife” has long been a legal euphemism for a huge pay-day.

France is being enveloped by a growing cloud of ephemeral celebrity culture and money-obsessed lawyers wafting across the Channel.

So why is France now so much more like a country where three of the Queen’s four children are divorcees? It’s easy to blame Nicolas Sarkozy for everything going wrong in the Fifth Republic but I fear we must once again.

He became the first French president in history to divorce within a few months of coming to office in 2007, a fact not lost on Brigitte Gaumet, organiser of New Start.

Admitting that Sarkozy’s marital failing had inspired the fair, Mrs Gaumet said: “For me, it crystallised that divorce has lost its stigma and is really a commonplace thing.”

She also generously suggested that a very public legal settlement was preferable to the messy business of mistresses and secret love-children which underpinned the otherwise “rock-solid” marriages of almost all previous French heads of state.

While presidents from François Mitterrand to Jacques Chirac did everything they could to keep their private failings just that, Sarkozy has at least been honest.

Even his First Lady, Carla Bruni, announced shortly before her marriage last year: “I am monogamous from time to time but I prefer polygamy.”

True, Bruni has never been divorced, but after numerous affairs with a succession of married men, including Mick Jagger, she is unlikely to be playing the family values card before the next general election.

What is certain is that celebrity shenanigans featuring household names such as Bruni have had a profound influence on modern France, with world-famous divorcees from overseas actually becoming role models.

They include confirmed francophiles Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, who have bought a huge estate in Provence, not far from one belonging to Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis, also much admired across France.

All have been involved in highly publicised break-ups, furthering the contemporary view that divorce can be as much a part of an exciting, glamorous new start as abject misery.

Sarkozy’s traditional voters might not agree but if an awkward little politician can emerge from two failed marriages as a globe-trotting celebrity with a former supermodel as his new wife, there must be a chance for everybody.

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