In the court of Carla Bruni

The latest sensation in France’s love-hate relationship with its first lady has been whether Carla Bruni is pregnant. And her appearance this week at Cannes in Woody Allen’s latest film only adds to the fun. Here, five people in the know reveal what she really means to the republic

The long-suffering French public sometimes feels it knows a little too much about its first lady. In three years of Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni’s whirlwind romance and marriage, we’ve been treated to their first dates, joint jogging sessions, pet names, expensive love tokens and taste for kissing in public — unprecedented at the Elysée Palace. We know Bruni hired a personal trainer who tones up the muscles of the couple’s private parts, that beer makes her bloated and can lead to mistaken speculation that she’s pregnant, that she’s addicted to cigarettes and likes to watch DVDs with her husband after work (Stanley Kubrick or Pasolini). We were even treated to Madame Bruni-Sarkozy’s old tissues and loose change when she once publicly tipped out the contents of her handbag for the nation (hairbrush, reading glasses, teddy and a notebook for jotting down song lyrics. “I’ve got writing like a psychopath,” she helpfully explained).

We’ve listened to Bruni’s album of love songs to her husband (“I want your laugh in my mouth” was one line) and now we’ll inevitably troop to the cinema to watch her cameo in the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris, shot as the proud president stood watching on set. In France, Allen is a god who can do no wrong. Perhaps Bruni’s cameo is a way to redeem herself to a nation so embarrassed by her husband. Bruni’s stint as première dame de France was never going to be easy. It wasn’t the fact that she was a multimillionaire Italian former supermodel turned folk-pop singer who once dated Mick Jagger. It was more that the circumstances of her marriage to Sarkozy were stacked against her from the start. In autumn 2007, the newly elected Sarkozy went to pieces when his adored wife Cécilia finally divorced him. A teetotaller normally in bed by midnight, he begged friends to organise dinner parties to distract him. At one dinner he met Bruni, who looks uncannily like a younger version of his ex-wife. Less than three months later they married at the Elysée. It was his third marriage and her first. Spending the wedding night at their retreat in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles did little to stop the inevitable comparisons with Marie Antoinette, another fashion-obsessed foreigner married to an unpopular head of state.

Bruni’s role since then has been intriguing. She took French nationality, ditching her Italian passport so she can vote for her staunchly right-wing husband. She recently renounced her former left-wing ideals as the mere trifles of a few years spent hanging around with a bourgeois bohemian music crowd. She said her husband was so intelligent he had “five, or even six brains” but she nudged his famously philistine cultural tastes away from naff pop and Elvis impersonators, encouraging him to quote Nietzsche and carry around Proust.

Bruni insists that her role is not a political one, yet she has influenced certain policy, namely Sarkozy’s draconian, but ineffective, law against illegal downloading to protect the music and film industry. Some of her close friends have moved to high places, such as the culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand. She was called a “prostitute” by Iran after she condemned plans to stone Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani to death for alleged adultery and murder. She was attacked by Silvio Berlusconi’s family newspapers, which accused her of trying to be Mother Teresa after the L’Aquila earthquake.

Bruni charm
Barely a few months into the Sarkozy marriage, 55% of French people felt Sarkozy used Bruni to boost his own image. Diplomats agree. The French president deliberately wheels out the Bruni charm on foreign trips when he wants to secure big arms deals or nuclear sales, notably in Brazil and India, where the popular press adores her. Sarkozy always wanted to style Cécilia as Jackie Kennedy, fancying himself as JFK. With Bruni beside him in demure suits and clutching an array of designer handbags (all empty, she has explained), the image seemed complete. Infinitely more aristocratic and far richer than her husband, Bruni’s stint at Swiss finishing school comes to the fore at official dinners. She comes from a life of such luxury that the Sarkozys choose to live at her Paris mansion, rather than at the Elysée. But news photographers despair of the wooden professionalism learnt in her modelling days: she finds it hard not to pose, often tilting her head and pouting a smile more forced than her husband’s famously empty grin.

Nowadays Bruni steers interviews firmly towards her charity work, centred largely on Aids, which killed her photographer brother, as well as tuberculosis and malaria. Her latest offensive is against illiteracy in France. In January, 66% of French people said they approved of her role. But the previous month she was found to be the figure in the world of arts and music who most irritated the French.

She now says she will back her husband if, as expected, he runs for a second term in 2012. Earlier she seemed reticent, suggesting she feared for the toll on his health after he collapsed while jogging in 2009. Obligingly, she has pushed back the release of her latest album to avoid detracting from the presidential race. Now all that’s needed is a baby with Sarkozy to complete the media charm offensive. Bruni (43) who already has a 10-year-old son, has deliberately left people guessing over the latest round of rumours — the third report of a pregnancy in three years but, to French journalists, the most credible.

As for the unpopular president, he seems confident not only that he’ll win again, but that Carla will stick around. He recently summed up his prospects with her: two terms as president, then “la dolce vita”.

Marie Darrieussecq, novelist and writer
Carla has had a cultural impact on Sarkozy more than on French culture. Sarkozy is very different to any president we’ve ever had — past presidents were always keen on literature and theatre.

Sarkozy was like a new man when it came to this side of things. He wasn’t into it — he was what we call “bling-bling”: he loved yachts, money, big Rolex watches and showing off. Carla is the opposite, and she’s had a real influence on him.

There’s a famous story where she convinced him to exchange his big watch for something a lot more discreet, and I think that example has extended to all facets of his life: she’s refined and toned him down.

Carla doesn’t really have an influence on French culture, or the French people, but it is a widely held view that she does have an influence within the Elysée on cultural matters.

Before she married Sarkozy, my husband bought her album and we listened to it at home like everybody else — she was a successful singer. We wouldn’t buy any of her albums now. That’s the problem with Carla: she lost her audience because she married him. He has everything to gain with her, while she has everything to lose in terms of image and audience by being with him.

Nobody doubts that they really are in love. Here in France we have respect for real love stories, and this is one of them.

Carla suffers from what we call the Marie Antoinette syndrome: she was erotic and exotic to us, being half-Italian — and the French welcome these “queens from abroad” — but the issue over the past two years is that she is too rich in a country where a lot of people are really poor. France is suffering: social security, education and the public health system are in disarray and people aren’t happy about it. And she doesn’t say a word. Where is she? In my view, what is unforgivable is that she has supported a government that created the ministry of national identity and immigration — basically the last step before fascism — and she’s a part of that system. She’s really on that side now.

She gave an interview to a liberal newspaper a few years ago and declared that she had only ever been on the left “skin deep”. There was much talk about this expression in leftist circles; she was never on the left from her guts. And no one really believed she ever was — I think she saw it as a fashionable, “arty” way of being. She recently said that her husband had convinced her of the virtues of the right, so her image is very blurred here in France.

Carla’s not very popular, because she’s too rich, too beautiful — she’s just too much. She’s part of the international jet set — houses and castles all over the planet — and from the point of view of the average person in France, her lifestyle is unforgivable, regardless of how low-key she tries to be.

She’s very clever and has been quite frank in her opinions in the past. She’s openly said that she loves men with power. I like the fact that she dared to say things like that. She obviously doesn’t say such things now, but because of her high profile before Sarkozy, we have a sense of who she really is in a way that we haven’t with former presidents’ wives. She’s good at acting the part, and I guess that’s a job in itself.

Carla’s story is a story of metamorphosis — we watch her change before our very eyes.

George Scott, film director, Isis Productions
We were approached to make a documentary with Carla in 2007 — before she had met Sarkozy. In October I met her at her house in Paris. She was warm, funny and self-deprecating. What struck me is that when you’re talking to her, she never takes her eyes off you. She’s absolutely engaged — that’s unusual for someone with that degree of celebrity. She didn’t think her story was very interesting; it wasn’t disingenuous — that’s really how she felt. The idea was to begin filming when she started recording her next album. Two months later, rumours of her relationship with Sarkozy started doing the rounds. I thought the film wouldn’t happen. Then in January 2008 we got a call saying that Carla still wanted to do it, so we started filming about a week after the wedding. Surprisingly, in the eight months we filmed, we had no contact with the Elysée Palace. Carla is very relaxed and back then, when she was a newlywed, I don’t think she was aware of how famous she had become. Once she fancied a burger, so we wandered up the Champs-Elysées, by which time we were surrounded by people. But she’s also a private person, she doesn’t go to parties and she’s very comfortable in her own home. I think she’s an impeccable first lady who’s achieved a lot, and a great ambassador for France and the French. Unfortunately people can’t separate Carla from her husband and his politics and take her for who she is.

Roland Mouret, designer
I was a stylist on the first photo shoot Carla did as a model when she was 16. She had a relaxed and assured style — I think it has something to do with her Italian upbringing. She’s physically gifted and has always been very humble in the way she likes to dress. Clothes are not supposed to disturb a personality; they should enrich who you are — and she understands that instinctively. She has a relaxed and simple style: jeans, a pair of loafers and a trench — she loves that simplicity in her clothing, but she also has a natural sense for dressing for official events. It’s simple and clean, laid-back.

I’ve worked with her on several occasions since she married President Sarkozy. Going for a fitting with Carla is a real pleasure. She is not a diva and puts everyone at ease. She has an amazing way of talking about any subject. People imagine she is high maintenance and that working with her is difficult, but it’s not.

Supporting French designers is close to Carla’s heart. To have the first lady championing French design the way she does is something that is very powerful for the fashion industry.

She also likes to please her husband; they are a proper couple, and she wants him to find her attractive and she takes him into account: she wears flat shoes because obviously she is taller than him. She’s incredibly natural and comfortable with herself. Again, I think it comes back to her Italian education and the fact that she really experienced life before she got married.

It’s an amazing sign of our times that the president’s wife is more than a wife. It’s never happened before, and I’ve really enjoyed her response to it. It’s less pretentious, and there’s a sense of honesty about it. Why shouldn’t she have her own life? Why should she only be what’s expected of her? She’s the wife of the president, but she’s also a successful model, singer and now actress. With Carla, everything is public; there’s nothing bubbling away in the background. If she wants to record music or appear in a Woody Allen film, then she does. It’s quite unorthodox, and it’s also challenging.

Both Carla and Sarkozy stand for what they believe in and try to do their best. Time will show us if they were right or wrong. She represents what a woman her age in the 21st century stands for. Carla is her own person, and a real force. She’s also very lucky in that everything fits her like a glove.

Sylvain Bourmeau, deputy editor on the daily newspaper Libération
Carla used to be featured regularly in the news. Not only for fashion stories, but also for dating famous men. She was a supermodel — you could compare her to Kate Moss in terms of profile, although they have different backgrounds and Carla is nowhere near as scandalous. She is unashamedly from a wealthy, privileged background.

I was an editor at Les Inrockuptibles, a weekly culture magazine, when her first album was released. The music press didn’t know what to expect. It wasn’t amazing, but it was accomplished — a top model, she’d made the move into music with great success. By the time her second album, No Promises, was released, the music press realised she wanted to be taken seriously artistically — and the concept of setting music to poems by writers such as Emily Dickinson and Yeats was interesting. Carla’s fanbase grew.

When it was announced that she and Sarkozy were together, there was shock and disappointment in the press. She’d delivered an album that was good and then announced she was going out with him, which was bad.

I’m not sure she has had much of a cultural impact on France. She stays very much in the background when it comes to political matters, but Carla is like a soothing plaster for Sarkozy’s absence of culture. He’s well known for his lack of it and she is the voice of the art world within the Elysée Palace. It’s convenient for him: to have a wife to tell him what to like and dislike, who teaches him taste. He’s well known for his lack of culture, and she is the voice of the art world within the Elysée Palace.

Carla isn’t taken seriously by the media over here now. That only lasted a short while — between the release of her first album and the announcement of her relationship with the president. She seems to have lost the affections of the public, too. A poll showed she is one of the most disliked people in the country.

Where does she go from here as an artist? Her new album keeps being postponed, and there’s no way she will be doing live shows. She’s the first lady now, there’s no getting around that. She has a minor role in a film, but no one expects that she will relaunch herself as an actress. I guess we will just have to see what happens at the next election. Carla’s musical career was damaged by marrying Sarkozy, and I don’t know if she anticipated just how much it would be — perhaps she didn’t realise that it would be impossible to have it all. –

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