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TRADITIONAL ROLE BROKEN BY FRENCH FIRST LADY

First lady or first diplomat? With her high-profile role in Tuesday's release by Libya of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, Cecilia Sarkozy proved to be both.

Photographed just two years ago with another man and practically invisible during the presidential campaign this spring, Madame Sarkozy is carving out a unique role for herself in the new France that her husband, President Nicolas Sarkozy, is shaping.

Her role in the release broke with the tradition of French first ladies taking a backseat to their husbands. But it reinforced the image of a couple unconstrained by conventions and of a president who sent his 49-year-old wife to North Africa to get results.

Cecilia Sarkozy made two trips to Libya this month to push for the medical workers' release and scored the coup of flying them home to Bulgaria on Tuesday.

It still wasn't clear whether France played a crucial role or whether the Sarkozys happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Sarkozy mentioned the medical workers' plight during his election campaign and in his first speech as president-elect, and he worked the phones in the closing stages of negotiations that led to their release.

Pierre Moscovici of the opposition Socialists accused President Sarkozy of profiting from the labor of others. "In my opinion, the lion's share of the work had been done by the European Union," he told France-2 television.

Others questioned Cecilia Sarkozy's credentials, insisting that with no elected mandate, she should not be involved in affairs of state. But Sarkozy supported his wife, calling her work "quite remarkable.''

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