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President in Love

Diana FongJanuary 22, 2008

Nicolas Sarkozy's relationship with Carla Bruni has led to speculation that the French president is trying to cover up political problems. But insiders say the affair sets a precedent in a totally different way.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy with new girlfriend, ex-supermodel and singer Carla Bruni
Sarkozy's refusal to confirm marriage rumors fuels even more press speculationImage: dpa/picture-alliance

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has broken with precedent like no other occupant of the Elysee Palace.

The son of a Hungarian aristocrat and grandson of a Greek-Jewish doctor, he embodies the multi-ethnic diversity of France that is reflected in some of his cabinet choices. Half of all top ministerial posts are filled by women, the highest proportion ever in France. Sarkozy, whose Gaullist party UMP is right of center, has even poached some of the best minds from his socialist rivals, such as the unusual choice of Bernard Kouchner, a medical doctor, as foreign minister.

In October, Sarkozy became the first head of state not only to divorce, but to do so in office, which prompted the release of three best-selling books about his ex-wife, Cecilia Ciganer.

"Speedy Sarko" captivates public with new love

French President Nicolas Sarkozy with ex-wife Cecilia and French flag in background
Sarkozy waited until after the elections to get divorced from CeciliaImage: AP

Then one Saturday afternoon in mid-December he showed up in Disneyland Paris with his new flame, Carla Bruni. Since then, the public has been bombarded with images of the Italian ex-supermodel turned pop singer and the details of her past relationships with rock stars, actors and France's literati. Bruni's uncanny physical resemblance to Cecilia -- both are tall, striking blue-eyed brunettes, has all of France putting the president on the psychoanalyst's couch debating whether "speedy Sarko" is now suddenly on the rebound after his ex had ceremoniously left him.

In news reports, Prime Minister Francois Fillon had even complained that the president was behaving like a love-struck teenager at cabinet meetings.

"He giggles," said Fillon in an interview with the widely respected French satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaine. "When we talk to him, he does not always listen. He cancels meetings, which is not like him."

On Jan. 8 at a lengthy news conference, the 52-year-old president admitted to a "serious relationship" with Bruni, 40, and talked about the emotional pain of divorce. But his refusal to confirm or deny marriage rumors has only fuelled even more press speculation about the couple's intentions.

No more taboos on discussing a president's love life

That Sarkozy himself even discussed his private life at all in such a public forum however was remarkable and unprecedented in the annals of presidential history, according to French sociologists and media watchers.

Although the sexual peccadilloes of former presidents such as Francois Mitterrand, who had fathered a daughter out of wedlock, were long known to media insiders, there used to be a silent pact among journalists that the private lives of top politicians were off-limits, according to Denis Muzet, founder of the Paris-based politics and media institute, Mediascopie.

"Taboos have been lifted," said Muzet, who explained that once Bernadette, the wife of former president Jacques Chirac published her popular memoirs about her husband's infidelities, the floodgates started to open and in a sense liberated the couple from the constraints of the presidency.

"The rules have been changing considerably since the death of Princess Diana 10 years ago," he added. "What I call 'peoplization of the press' is so banal now that even the serious press jumps on the bandwagon."

Sarkozy, whose political mentor was Chirac, has simply gone much further than his predecessor in exposing his private life to public view.

French press freer than ever to set the agenda

Nicolas Sarkozy's family at the time of the French election with wife and children
The portrait of an attractive, harmonious family helps the presidential imageImage: AP

"He wants to show that even presidents live, love and suffer like ordinary people," said Muzet, who dismissed suggestions that Sarkozy is trying to divert the French from real problems their country faces from social unrest in the immigrant suburbs to rising consumer prices that have diminished purchasing power. "He wants to show he is transparent and has nothing to hide, down to photos of him on the beach in his swimming trunks."

Thierry Saussez, a close personal advisor to the president who founded the corporate communications agency Image et Strategie Europe, also emphasized that Sarkozy is not trying to deflect the country's focus from the economic slowdown by flaunting his private life as a few commentators have suggested. The French press is now freer than ever to set the agenda, he said.

"Under Mitterrand, journalists and others who knew about Mitterrand's illegitimate daughter were under tremendous pressure to keep his double life under wraps," said Saussez, who explained that the public has become so saturated with intimate images of their president enjoying the Egyptian pyramids with Bruni during the Christmas holidays that it has contributed to a drop in the polls. "And now it's gone the other way with too much exposure of a president's private life."

For the first time since Sarkozy assumed office in May when he was riding a wave of popularity with two-thirds of the public supporting him, his approvals ratings have now dipped to below 50 percent, according to all pollsters. But Saussez was careful to point out that the Bruni brouhaha is only part of the reason for the poll results.

"The public needs assurances that the president is working hard and doing his job, not just having fun," he said. "But the French are also a very impatient people and they want the president to fix their problems right away."

Are they getting married?

Ex-supermodel Carla Bruni doing catwalk at fashion show
Bruni looks like a younger version of Sarkozy's ex-wife, who was also a modelImage: AP Photo

But did Sarkozy have to make Disneyland of all places, the site for his first very public outing with Bruni?

"Sarkozy is behaving in a way that no French president has," said Helene Brunerie, a French artist living in Germany. "He's divorced and suddenly in the arms of a top model.

"On one hand I'm glad that the press in France has the freedom to be so colorful and uninhibited, but the image of the French president that is being projected to the world is undignified," she added, reflecting the view of many French citizens living abroad.

To both Sarkozy admirers and detractors, the image problem can at least be partially fixed if he tied the knot with Bruni.

For one it would solve sticky protocol problems when they travel abroad on official presidential visits as a couple. On Friday, the French president will be in India, where officials are beside themselves about whether to give Bruni the First Lady or the girlfriend treatment.

Saussez predicted that Bruni will not go, thereby keeping the public guessing about his marital status.

"The president needs to get married," he said.

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