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15 October 2009

Superwife on the warpath

Sylvie Brunel launches a counter-attack

By Sophie Elmhirst

She is a humanitarian by trade, but a warrior by marriage. After 30 years of suffering the indignity of a philandering partner, in the coiffed form of France’s immigration minister, Éric Besson, Sylvie Brunel has launched a counter-attack. Her book, Guerrilla Handbook for Women, has just been published in France, much to the delectation of the political classes.

In it, Brunel leaves no marital stone unturned, describing Besson’s voracious appetite for other women and “interchangeable mistresses”. Apparently, when they wed in 1983, as the mayor intoned the French vows of “fidelity, aid and support”, Besson interrupted: “Fidelity, no.”
It was hardly a great start. Nevertheless, the couple made a good show of it, once posing, hands placed tenderly on one another’s knees, nestled amid haystacks in his constituency in rural France. But Brunel now says her husband was unfaithful during five years before marriage, never mind the 25 they battled through before he left her for a younger woman.

For Brunel – a geographer, economist and writer who worked for Médecins sans Frontières and Action Against Hunger for more than 15 years before becoming a professor at the Sorbonne – washing her dirty linen in public must feel like a grisly come-down. She is a woman preoccupied
by higher things, who has spent her working life tackling the world’s problems.

But it seems that ending world hunger might have been a more manageable task for Brunel than steadying the roving eye of her hyperactive husband. Besson – known once as “the Traitor” for his sudden abandonment of the Socialist cause to support Nicolas Sarkozy during the presidential election – was never one to be contained. The story goes that as soon as Besson had finished his starter at the couple’s wedding reception, he leapt up to watch motor-racing on the television.

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Besson’s reaction to his ex-wife’s book has been similarly unexpected. After realising he was unable to stop its publication, he appears to have embraced the furore and French journalists suggest in private that he is relishing the media attention. It is the ultimate indignity for Brunel. In seeking to ruin her husband, she has managed to promote him. Politics, it seems, has no time for a woman scorned.

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