PARIS (AP) – It was a day of tests for President Nicolas Sarkozy. The toughest strikes in a dozen years challenged his young presidency amid fallout from the announcement of his divorce – the first by a president of France.

A painful counterpoint to years of very public expressions of love for his wife Cecilia, the divorce sealed increasingly visible strains that fed months of speculation about the Sarkozys’ marriage.

The split, announced Thursday, spelled the end of a seemingly passionate but deeply political power couple who had challenged the traditional role of president and first lady.

Friends said the personal blow won’t dent Sarkozy’s energetic leadership as he works to reshape France, make it more competitive and nurture its alliance with the United States.

“He knows how to turn the page,” said lawmaker and friend Patrick Balkany.

The 15-word statement from the presidential office said Cecilia, 49, and Nicolas, 52, mutually agreed to end their relationship of more than 20 years, 11 of them as a married couple. “They will have no comment,” the statement concluded.

Sarkozy flew to Lisbon, Portugal, for a European summit shortly afterward, leaving a nation strike-bound by workers angered by planned pension reforms.

The divorce, granted Monday, followed weeks of unconfirmed media reports about an impending split, fed by frequent absences of the first lady – a title she shunned – at official occasions.

Until the Sarkozys, French presidents’ private lives remained largely off-limits to the media. Previous presidents’ trysts were long kept secret. But Sarkozy courted the spotlight for years in his long run-up to the presidency, talking frequently about his relationship – and that has meant his marital troubles were front-page news.

The couple bucked French conventions from the start.

Both previously married, they endeared the nation at the May 16 presidential inauguration, showing up with their blended family of five children – two each from their previous marriages, as well as their own 10-year-old son, Louis.

On his path to the presidency, Sarkozy made a habit of showing off his relationship with his dark-eyed wife, strutting with her at his side before photographers, making constant phone calls or sending text messages to her when out of town. He made her his top aide with an adjoining office when he served as interior minister and he relied, at least partially, on her judgment in appointing his Cabinet.

However, it was common knowledge the couple had downs as well as ups. Cecilia Sarkozy had failed to vote in the second round of the presidential election in May.

In 2005, Sarkozy evoked his marital difficulties on television after his wife was photographed with another man and the couple separated for several months. He, meanwhile, was photographed with a journalist for a major daily. “Like millions of families, mine has known difficulties. We are overcoming these difficulties,” he said.

The couple reunited in early 2006.

“Nearly 20 years after our first encounter, pronouncing her name moves me,” Sarkozy wrote in his 2006 book, “Testimony,” recounting the couple’s difficulties in a section simply entitled “C.”

“Today, Cecilia and I have found each other for good, for real, doubtless forever,” he wrote.

Their divorce was granted Monday “in the presence of the two,” the couple’s lawyer, Michele Cahen, told The Associated Press. She refused to say when the divorce was requested. Under a procedure instituted in 2005, a divorce in France can take 10 to 12 weeks.

“It went very well. There was not the least difficulty,” the lawyer said on Europe-1 radio.

Friends insisted the divorce would have no repercussions on affairs of state.

Sarkozy will be “profoundly affected” by the divorce, but “I sincerely think that this will have absolutely no impact on his mission as head of state,” said Isabelle Balkany, a friend of the couple.

She said Cecilia Sarkozy had trouble accepting the “terrible pressure” of the role of first lady.

“She knew she would have a hard time supporting the conventional side, the weighty side of the institution itself and all that pomp.”

Cecilia has lately been seen driving her own car on a chic street of designer shops. But mostly she has been invisible.

“I don’t see myself as ‘first lady.’ It bores me,” she told the magazine Tele Star in May 2005. “I’m not politically correct …. I don’t fit the mold.”

She bowed out early from the presidential couple’s first state event, a G-8 summit in Germany in June. She skipped a lunch offered by President Bush in August, when the Sarkozys were vacationing in New Hampshire. Sarkozy made excuses for her absences.

Cecilia Sarkozy reportedly felt offended by the critical spotlight shed on her July mission to free five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor jailed in Libya. Sent by her husband, she negotiated directly with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Critics in France said diplomacy should not be her place, and a parliamentary hearing into the matter opened Wednesday.

Some wondered whether the politically astute Sarkozy timed the divorce announcement to upstage the biggest challenge so far to his presidency, a day of massive transport strikes Thursday to protest his pension reforms.

Government spokesman Laurent Wauquiez vigorously rebuffed that suggestion, calling it “disgraceful.”

AP-ES-10-18-07 1736EDT

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