At the Élysée Palace, in Paris, the new First Lady of France, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, is finishing lunch with Sarah Brown, the wife of Great Britain’s prime minister, Gordon Brown. As I wait outside her office in a large, ornate sitting room filled with elegant Second Empire furniture, I glance out the tall windows to the sun-drenched garden, where a boxwood maze is framed by blooming wisteria. Suddenly the door opposite me bursts open, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, comes sprinting into the room. “Bonjour!” he calls out as he barrels into his wife’s office and shuts the door.
Even though I have heard that Sarkozy wants to be perceived and photographed as a man of action, it is nevertheless startling to see him race through a room just the way so many political cartoons have portrayed him. He got elected in May 2007 on a right-wing, pro-American platform of la rupture, promising to break many of the traditions and laws of a calcified Fifth Republic. Expectations ran high after he appointed a diverse Cabinet, including Socialists, a number of good-looking women, and the daughter of North African immigrants as minister of justice.
Elected when he was 52, the high-octane Sarkozy is much younger than French presidents tend to be, having begun his political career as a town councillor in Neuilly, a wealthy Paris suburb, when he was only 22. However, his apparent meltdown over his tempestuous divorce from his second wife, Cécilia, after only five months in office, and his very public courtship and quickie remarriage, just three and a half months after that, to a glamorous ex-model and singer who had been involved with everyone from Mick Jagger to the son of famed Nazi-hunters to a former Socialist prime minister, were a bit de trop even for the French. More galling still were Sarkozy’s penchant for hanging with billionaires and his obsession with celebrity—sporting aviator Ray-Bans as he flaunted a navel-baring Bruni on a vacation in Muslim Egypt.
In May, his approval rating hit a low of 32 percent, after having been in the 50s and 60s for the six months following his election. Part of Sarkozy’s problem is that in his campaign he promised more than he could deliver. France guarantees workers five weeks of paid leave annually and allows them to turn down job offers while on unemployment if what’s offered is not up to their standards. Once the economy started sinking, Sarkozy’s grand reforms, which included dumping the 35-hour workweek, reducing pension benefits for state employees, and revamping the university system, met with massive demonstrations, which forced him to pull back somewhat on his ambitious agenda. There were also self-inflicted problems. After Sarkozy’s wife, Cécilia, went to Libya to spearhead the release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who were accused of infecting children with H.I.V., for example, the new president allowed Colonel Muammar Qaddafi literally to pitch his tent on the lawn across the street from the Élysée Palace for five days. Perhaps sensing that that might get him in trouble with Jewish voters, Sarkozy next announced that each French elementary-school student should adopt the soul of a French Jewish child killed in the Holocaust. None of this rash activity went down well, particularly with his older, more conservative constituents. As Jean-Luc Mano, a political adviser of Sarkozy’s, told me, “These people can’t change their wives every week.”
Once their patience was strained, the French people were unforgiving in their condemnation of Sarkozy’s flashy style. He soon became known as “le Président Bling-Bling” in a country where good taste is sacred. “The national conversation changed to the price of watches,” Mano said. More than one person told me approvingly that Bruni has helped bring Sarkozy to his senses, citing the fact that she made him get rid of his big gold Rolex and replace it with a sleek Patek Philippe, and that he no longer creates a ruckus by jogging in the Bois de Boulogne, the public park on the western edge of Paris—not since it became clear that the French were horrified to see pictures of their president sweating. These days, Bruni runs with him on the gravel paths in the Élysée garden. If the French people were never told that the late president François Mitterrand had two families, if they never learned of his love-child daughter and his mistress until shortly before they saw them walking behind his coffin with his wife and legitimate daughter, they could adapt to it. After all, Mitterrand read Latin, and he was discreet. France is an old country, and her presidents are expected to behave in the monarchical tradition. Sarkozy’s critics soon came to view him as having lost his balance and thus having squandered an extraordinary mandate.
The president emerges again about five minutes later, followed by his willowy bride, who in flats is several inches taller than he is, along with Mrs. Brown and two male aides. The women have been discussing maternal mortality, and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, 40, the spirited Italian heiress whose nude pictures from her modeling days are all over the Internet, is easily in command. While her husband’s ratings are in the cellar, she is getting raves for her beauty, class, and elegance. When the couple visited the Queen of England in March, for example, the British gushed over her perfect curtsy and her demure, Jackie Kennedy outfits. “She’s imaginative, clever, educated. She knows how to behave,” says designer Karl Lagerfeld, who often used Bruni as a model. “She speaks many languages. It must be an embarrassment for the wives of other heads of state to see this beautiful creature who can wear anything and speak like that.” On his visit to France in June, George W. Bush was certainly won over, telling Sarkozy in the middle of a press conference, “It was a great pleasure to have been able to meet your wife. She’s a really smart, capable woman, and I can see why you married her. And I can see why she married you, too.”
Bruni beckons me from across the room to meet her husband. “Bonjour, Maureen,” he says with a big smile. “Is she helping you?,” I ask. Bruni puts her arm around the president, pulling him in to kiss his cheek and nuzzle his face with her nose. Beaming, Sarkozy tells me, “I am happy like nev-air.”
Once everyone leaves, Bruni and I go into the stunning office that Cécilia Sarkozy rarely visited. There is no question that Carla Bruni is thrilled to be First Lady. As she removes the jacket of her navy pin-striped pantsuit to reveal a thin little cotton camisole underneath, she lights an ultra-slim cigarette, saying, “Are you sure you don’t mind? I didn’t mean to start up again.” Then she gracefully kneels down on the floor in front of a black lacquered table, geisha-style, poised and ready to answer questions. As she puffs and waves the smoke away, without any aides hovering about, I sit across from her on the floor, aware that this gorgeous woman is in the catbird seat.
There were 76 books written about Sarkozy, Carla, and Cécilia in the first year of his presidency. Though the French profess a certain disdain for Sarkozy’s unpresidential style, they clearly cannot get enough. “Carla has led many lives,” the noted journalist Christine Ockrent, whose companion, Bernard Kouchner, is the French foreign minister, tells me. “She’s a kind of alpha female. She was never a courtesan like Pamela Harriman—she was more like a female Don Juan.”
Carla Bruni is no stranger to privilege. In the opening scene of her sister Valeria’s semi-autobiographical film, It’s Easier for a Camel … , the female protagonist goes to church to confess, “I am rich—I am very, very rich.” Bruni was born into one of the industrial dynasties in Turin. The family fortune came from the ceat company, which produced electrical cable. Alberto Bruni-Tedeschi, the patriarch, however, was as much a composer and art collector as a capitalist. “He could converse on anything from A to Z,” says a family friend. Carla’s extroverted mother, Marisa, who appears in Valeria’s films, was a concert pianist. Carla, Valeria, and their brother, Virginio, grew up on a vast estate outside the city. Carla studied piano, violin, and guitar. “Ours were not the kind of parents who would spend time with children,” she tells me. But neither, she adds, were they interested “in the power of money. Maybe because my parents were artists. I remember that every time my father had to choose between increasing his business and going to the museum he would go to the museum, and I think that was transmitted to us.”
In 1975, when the Red Brigades were kidnapping wealthy individuals, Carla’s family moved to Paris, where she attended an Italian school and received a French baccalaureate. Her parents expected her to continue her studies, but she soon tired of the 37 Métro stops it took to get to classes on art and architecture, and she couldn’t wait to be on her own. So when her brother’s girlfriend, a model, told her to try modeling, she made her move. “What I wanted was to be free, independent of my parents,” says Carla. “Modeling is a fast-acting job—right away you get to work, and you learn in two or three months by working.” That became her pattern: take on a big challenge, learn fast, and land on top.
She also learned to take on men. “Carla is the hunter, not the hunted,” says a man who knew her in her teens. “She is a female womanizer.” Carla herself says she was very much influenced by the works of Simone de Beauvoir and France’s original bourgeois bad girl, Françoise Sagan, who championed sexual freedom for women. “I think it is a major duty for a woman to be independent.” She did not want to be like her grandmother, who was widowed at 34 and “never had another man.” She adds, “Independence was my obsession when I was 20. It was not making money; it was making my own money. Modeling meant I did not have to rely on my parents or a man.” Traveling was also important. “I learned how other people lived. I was trying to speak other languages,” she says. “Modeling has a reputation for emptiness, but it’s not. It is certainly not German philosophy, but it was very instructive, because it was made up of real life. You travel, you are always alone, and you better be well grounded, because it’s easy to lose yourself.”
Carla entered the world of modeling just behind the first wave of supermodels—Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista. The phenomenon continued to explode with Cindy Crawford, Helena Christensen, and Claudia Schiffer. At her height in the 90s, Carla Bruni was in the top tier of supermodels, with 250 magazine covers and millions of dollars in earnings. Her mother was her manager—“there to help,” says David Brown, who was her agent, “not to cash in.” Carla had a truly regal quality, and designers liked her because she was easy to work with. “She was full of life and wit. She was beyond polite,” says Karl Lagerfeld. “So many, like Linda and Christy, had periods of being moody and difficult. She was always perfect.” Designer Jean Paul Gaultier agrees: “She’s clever, super well educated, and very focused. She is like the heroine of a book or a movie.”
Albeit a heroine with a reputation for being very naughty. Eric Clapton writes in his memoirs about how hard he fell for Carla when she was 21 and how he pleaded with Mick Jagger not to steal her away. But Jagger did, much to the consternation of Jerry Hall, the mother of four of his children. Carla and Mick carried on for years, and all the while she had other romances. (Some affairs the tabloid press claims she had, however—with Donald Trump and Kevin Costner, for example—never happened.)
She also gave provocative interviews, to put it mildly, telling one reporter, “I bore myself silly with monogamy. I prefer polygamy and polyandry.” She once opened the door to a male reporter topless. “It’s not that I had a lot of lovers,” Carla says. “It’s that I never hide them. It’s a different thing. I have not one day of regret.” According to David Brown, “Carla’s taste in men has always been fascinating. I have never seen a man fawn over Carla. She chooses her equal.”
She is still friendly with Jagger, is close friends with his first big love, singer Marianne Faithfull, and buys dresses from his current girlfriend, designer L’Wren Scott. “I called him last week [about getting a dress],” she tells me. “I have a very good relationship with exes. I have a good relationship with all the boyfriends I had. Sometimes I’m the godmother of their children. I’m always good friends with their wives.”
“Not Jerry Hall,” I venture.
“Not Jerry Hall, whom I never met. And I was never officially Mick’s girlfriend. I was never into his family and all that.”
As she left modeling, in 1997, Carla, who up to then had been considered the least educated and least artistic member of her family, began analysis, she says, to get over “my narcissism” and to prepare herself for the next stage in her life. She quietly began writing song lyrics, never imagining that she would one day perform them herself. But Bertrand de Labbey, the music agent and producer, convinced her that she should, and he also got her to write songs for the hugely popular singer Julien Clerc, who recorded several of them. When Carla made her first album, she asked one ex-boyfriend, Louis Bertignac, to produce it, and another, Leos Carax, to direct the videos. Quelqu’un M’a Dit (Someone Told Me), delivered in a sexy, breathy voice, came out of nowhere to become a smash-hit CD that sold two million copies. Once again she was pleasantly surprised that old boyfriends had come through for her. “Sometimes the desire, the passion, makes you fight, but when that goes completely, you have only the good part of it,” she says.
“Do you think your husband is the kind of man who doesn’t mind all these other guys walking around in your life?”
“They are not really walking around. They are just walking around in my heart. I think it would be a very bad sign to deny. Everything with denying is sick. My own childhood reflects that.”
Bruni is referring to the strange revelation she heard from Alberto Bruni-Tedeschi in 1996, when she was 28 and he was gravely ill: “He told me he was not my genetic father.” And he asked her not to tell her mother that he knew, because it was not her mother’s fault. Her biological father, Maurizio Remmert, was a classical guitarist, also from a wealthy Turin family, who at 19 had played in a quintet with Marisa, who was twice his age. Their affair lasted six years. “It was not a shock, and that is how I knew it was true, because I felt calm when he told me that,” says Carla. “I think lies are toxic for children, much more than a bad truth. Sometimes lies, when you are growing up, make you walk in a funny way to adapt. But I felt relieved. Isn’t it strange? I stopped feeling weird.”
After her father died, about a year later, Carla confronted her mother, who told her it was true. Pressed further, says Carla, her mother told her, “What did you expect me to do? Go into the nursery to announce this to you?” Today Remmert lives in São Paulo, where he is a grocery magnate, and Carla is in frequent contact with him. “People like my parents could not get divorced,” she says. “They just couldn’t get it into their mind. That’s the mentality.”
Carla herself became a mother in 2001, at age 33, when she had her son, Aurélien. The child’s father, Raphaël Enthoven, was 25, a handsome professor of philosophy and a radio-show host. The conventional wisdom, told in countless press stories and books, is that Carla stole Raphaël away from his wife, author Justine Lévy, while Carla was the mistress of Raphaël’s father, publisher Jean-Paul Enthoven, the best friend of Justine’s father, the famed French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy. The tale propagated by Justine in her best-selling 2004 novel about the breakup of her marriage, Rien de Grave (published in English in 2005 as Nothing Serious), was that Paula, the Carla character in the book, was “a leech of a woman” with “a Terminator smile,” who had had plastic surgery, and that the Justine character was left because her husband wanted to show all the “big guys” like her father that he could get a woman like that. Appearing on Charlie Rose’s TV show in 2005, Justine Lévy said that the heroine’s husband leaves her “for the mistress of his father.”
Bruni flatly denies all of it. She claims that she had only had dinner with the elder Enthoven “five or six times.” He had arranged for her to be invited to spend New Year’s 2000 at the Morocco house of Bernard-Henri Lévy, but she says she called ahead to be sure she would have her own room. When they returned to Paris, she says, she and Jean-Paul Enthoven never went out again. “I never slept with him, not even a minute.” It was not until April 2000, she says, that she ran into Raphaël on his bicycle on the Boulevard Saint-Germain and he told her he was getting a divorce. She became pregnant that November. Justine Lévy’s book came out just as Carla was getting maximum publicity for her album and doing major concerts in Paris, in February 2004. Carla says she can live with the book, adding, “I detest the way it was sold.”
In May 2007, it was Carla’s turn to be surprised when, after they had been together nearly seven years, Raphaël told her he thought they should separate. They were living, she says, “with no engagement, no commitment,” very free. When he suggested they break up, “I hated it,” she admits. “ ‘We’re becoming like friends,’ he said. ‘What’s the point? We’re too young to be like that.’ ” Carla thought of her own parents, who “stayed together until the last minute of life.” But Raphaël prevailed, and according to her, things are now very civilized between them.
We have been talking in the house Carla rents, at the end of a cobblestoned cul-de-sac in the 16th Arrondissement, a house with high ceilings and a very large, ornate Italian mirror over the slate fireplace in the living room, where she has her piano, a microphone, and recording equipment. The mirror and a large statue of a Nubian slave are the only things she took from the palazzo where she had grown up. Her mother put the property on the market and sold its contents to begin a foundation for aids prevention and education after Carla’s brother, a graphic designer, photographer, and yachtsman, died from H.I.V.—which he had contracted on a trip to Africa—and lymphoma, in 2006. The house is comfortable, unpretentious, and protected, by a single plainclothes guard at the entrance to the road and another parked in an unmarked car nearby. The First Couple live here during the week with Aurélien, and gather their larger family—which includes Sarkozy’s three sons from his previous marriages—at the Élysée Palace on weekends. At one point a Chihuahua puppy named Tumi runs into the room. Carla scoops him up, saying, “My Internet went down, and we found he had chewed all the cords!”
We are talking exactly one year from the day that Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president of France. At that time Carla was approaching her 40th birthday, finishing the promotion of her second album, of songs in English, and coming to grips with being a single mother—“sharing time, sharing holidays, preparing my son for his first serious school.”
“I don’t think she was in the best moment of her life,” says film director Danièle Thompson, who has been close to Carla since she was a teenager. “She felt very much at a turning point in her life.” Bruni recalls, “We went through the summer, and then in September I was alone in this house with my little boy. And then I met Nicolas, on the 13th of November.”
The French call it a coup de foudre, a clap of thunder, love at first sight. Throughout his life Nicolas Sarkozy has demonstrated that he cannot bear to be without a strong woman. “Of all our politicians, he is by far the most sentimental. He needs to love. He can’t live by himself,” declares Sarkozy’s respected biographer Catherine Nay, who published Un Pouvoir Nommé Désir (A Power Named Desire) in 2007. A former girlfriend of his told me, “He needs women to calm him.” On his own, he tends to go to extremes. “Sarkozy is always over the top,” says Nay. “He doesn’t do medium-size things. Whatever he does, he does all the way. If he hadn’t been like this, he wouldn’t be president. He either shocks or electroshocks people.”
Sarkozy’s mother has said that Nicolas wanted to be president from the time he was a little boy, and his ambition was only heightened by having his handsome, womanizing father tell him, “With your name and your test scores, you will never succeed in France.” Pal Sarkozy came from aristocratic Hungarian stock but left everything behind when he sneaked out of Communist Hungary in 1947. He eventually became a successful graphic designer and advertising executive in Paris. Nicolas’s parents divorced when he was four. Pal lived grandly but refused to support his three sons. With their mother, Andrée, known as Dadu, the boys had to move in with their maternal grandfather, a parsimonious Parisian urologist who had been born in Thessaloníki, Greece, and who concealed the fact that he was a Jew. Andrée put herself through law school, while the children often worked two jobs in order to help pay for their education. Nicolas, who eventually became a business lawyer but did not study at one of the elite schools that traditionally turn out the country’s presidents, apparently grew up with a chip on his shoulder. He tells Nay that his mother was made “déclassée” by her divorce, and that he hated the condescending looks he and his family got constantly from wealthy neighbors.
Nay writes that at age 19 Sarkozy showed up at the conservative Gaullist Party headquarters in the chic suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, where the family had moved, and that he then worked tirelessly to create a youth organization for the party. In a town peppered with show-business personalities, he cultivated powerful allies. A friend of his tells Nay, “He had this saying: ‘When I’m not invited for dinner, I arrive at mealtime and ring the bell, and it’s rare that they don’t let me stay for dinner.’ ” At 22 he was elected a city councillor, and at 27 he married another party activist, blonde, pretty Marie-Dominique Culioli, the devout Catholic daughter of a Corsican pharmacist. Sarkozy was then a top aide to Neuilly’s mayor, who only a month after being re-elected dropped dead of a heart attack. In a surprising coup, the daring young Sarkozy outmaneuvered a far more experienced politician and got himself elected mayor. His precocity earned him the notice of Jacques Chirac, the mayor of Paris and the future president of France, who treated him like a son until Sarkozy betrayed him by backing his rival, Édouard Balladur, in the presidential election of 1995.
Before Marie-Dominique gave birth to their two sons, Pierre and Jean, fate intervened in Sarkozy’s life. One day in August 1984, a couple appeared at the town hall to be married by him. The groom was 52-year-old Jacques Martin, a French singer and TV personality. The bride was Cécilia Ciganer-Albéniz, a beautiful 26-year-old who was eight months pregnant. As if struck by lightning, Sarkozy promptly fell in love with her. Cécilia, the great-granddaughter of the famous Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz, had dropped out of school at 19, got a job as a fitting model for the designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s fashion house, and met Martin shortly after a stint working for Régine, the prominent disco owner. Thirteen days after her marriage, Cécilia produced a daughter, and the couple asked Sarkozy to be the godfather. (Cécilia and Martin had a second daughter in 1987.) The two families remained close friends until 1988, when the Sarkozys went on a ski trip with Cécilia. One day, when Marie-Dominique could not find her husband, she knocked on Cécilia’s door. There was a long pause, then a racket, and when Cécilia finally opened the door, Marie-Dominique saw an open window and fresh footprints in the snow. Cécilia filed for divorce first—Marie-Dominique would not consent to one for several years. For his part, Martin publicly threatened to beat Sarkozy up. Later, the young mayor raised eyebrows by openly moving in with his mistress. Cécilia had to endure being referred to in fashionable Neuilly as “the mayor’s whore.”
As Sarkozy rose, Cécilia intertwined her own powerful ambition with her husband’s, becoming Sarkozy’s closest confidante and adviser, running his schedule, choosing his ties, earning the nickname Air-Traffic Controller. When he was named minister of the budget, in 1993, she began to call herself Cécilia Sarkozy, even though the two were not yet married. “She suffered from being the mistress,” says Catherine Nay. “When journalists wrote about him, she insisted on being included in all the photos.” They finally married in 1996 and had a son, Louis, in 1997.
According to Nay, all the public attention had a major effect on Sarkozy. “From the minute he saw himself with Cécilia, he saw beautiful, modern images,” she says. “He thought Cécilia was his Jackie Kennedy, that it was politically interesting to have her with him—plus he loved her.” The two plotted his way to the presidency. When he was interior minister, from 2002 to 2004, and briefly finance minister, in 2004, she had an office next to his. “She gave advice on personnel, she got involved in policy,” says Nay. “She said what she thought of people.” Not surprisingly, she made enemies.
Despite Cécilia’s being “the great love of his life,” Nay alleges, Sarkozy was always susceptible to other women. “Whenever he had an opportunity to have an affair,” she tells me, “as mayor of Neuilly, in his office, he was a man who screws as much as he can.” The most public of these affairs was with Jacques Chirac’s daughter Claude. In France, however, Nay assures me, “it is not politically incorrect for politicians to have affairs.” It can be dangerous, however. Several people allege that Cécilia once received, presumably from her husband’s political enemies, a detailed list of all the women he had been with during their marriage.
Nay and others say that Cécilia finally got fed up, because she aspired to have a political career of her own and Sarkozy insisted that she stay next to him. They say he “suffocated” her, calling her “a hundred times a day” to tell her that he loved her. In his 2006 campaign autobiography, Témoignage (Testimony), Sarkozy wrote, “Even now, 20 years after our first meeting, it moves me to say her name.” According to Nay, “He never relaxes. It’s exhausting to be with him.” In 2005, Cécilia fell in love with another man, Richard Attias, a Moroccan-born, Jewish events organizer based in New York. The timing was terrible for Sarkozy.
Cécilia moved to New York to be with Attias and took Louis, her son by Sarkozy, with her. Sarkozy quickly became involved with Anne Fulda, a married mother of two, who was a political journalist for Le Figaro newspaper, and whom Cécilia was reputedly jealous of. According to someone close to Fulda, Sarkozy “arrived like a hurricane,” persuaded her to leave her husband, began a campaign to win over her skeptical family—including taking her mother to Venice twice—and six months later presented her with a diamond ring. But even while Cécilia was living with another man in New York, she and Sarkozy kept up a steady correspondence, including furious text messages from Cécilia, people close to Fulda allege, saying, “She’s taking my place.”
In early January 2006, Cécilia flew to Paris with Attias and Louis. Sarkozy met them on the tarmac and somehow persuaded Cécilia to come back to him. Fulda got a letter from Sarkozy assuring her that he had always been “sincere.” The reconciliation lasted a month; then Cécilia left again. Fulda took Sarkozy back, but she left him for good after a couple of months, and in the spring Cécilia returned once more. Sarkozy was deep into planning his presidential campaign, representing the right-leaning Union for a Popular Movement party (U.M.P.). His ultimate opponent in the runoff election was Socialist Ségolène Royal, the first woman to have a legitimate shot at the French presidency. (Soon after the election, she separated from her partner of 30 years and the father of her four children, Socialist Party chief François Hollande.)
Cécilia’s widely reported passive-aggressive behavior during the two-stage election of Sarkozy included not bothering to vote for him in the runoff and not showing up until very late on Election Night in 2007, dressed in casual slacks for the big dinner at Fouquet’s that she had personally arranged. She did not ride with him in the inaugural procession up the Champs-Élysées. What’s more, on their U.S. vacation in August last year, she did not appear at the Kennebunkport barbecue in their honor hosted by President and Laura Bush.
Nevertheless, Cécilia is credited with prompting Sarkozy to appoint women to half the spots in his Cabinet and to include Socialists and the first minister of Arab descent. In the palace, her people were constantly at odds with his, and Sarkozy was steadily under pressure to create a more substantive role for her. Apparently, the sniping and press criticism they received after her highly secret mission to Libya to obtain the release of the Bulgarian nurses—without any clear explanation of whether there was a quid pro quo arranged with Qaddafi—must have been the last straw for her. On October 18 of last year, after days of fevered speculation, the Élysée Palace issued a terse statement: “Cécilia and Nicolas Sarkozy announce their separation by mutual consent. They will make no comment.” Later that day the statement was amended to say that they had divorced.
Then, on November 13, lightning apparently struck again.
When Sarkozy arrived that night for a small dinner at the house of advertising mogul and left-wing political adviser Jacques Séguéla, he was not in a happy mood. Angry transit workers had just gone on strike and begun nightly demonstrations in the streets. Although he was already seeing a new woman, he was miserable whenever he had to be alone, and reportedly he managed to make his staff even more miserable. Carla, who had asked Séguéla if he knew anyone she could meet who was “free,” found herself seated to the president’s left. She had not voted for him, and at first she did not feel comfortable. “I wasn’t thinking of that,” she tells me. “I was thinking of someone more related to my life.” Séguéla reminded her that she had stipulated only that the person be free. When she told her host that she would not be able to sing after dinner, because she had forgotten her guitar, Séguéla, knowing how much Sarkozy enjoyed music, sent for one. It didn’t matter: the harmony between them was already clear. “I was in love at first sight,” Carla confesses. “I was really surprised by him, by his youth, his energy, his physical charm—which you could not actually see so much on television—his charisma. I was surprised by everything—his poise, and what he said, and the way he said it.”
She sensed that the feeling was mutual, “because he kept talking to me.” The seduction took four hours, and, according to Séguéla, the other five guests sat transfixed, watching the pair.
Carla asked Sarkozy for a ride home and gave him her number. “Then I called Jacques and said, ‘What did you do? Why did you introduce me to this man? He is so charming! And now what is going to happen? He didn’t even call me.’ ” Séguéla says he told her, “He only left you five minutes ago!” Carla concludes, “Actually, Nicolas did call a little later that same night.”
Lunch at her house the following week confirmed their passion.
“Have you ever fallen in love that fast before?,” I ask.
“No, never,” she says. When her son came downstairs to be introduced to Sarkozy, the president said, “Your mother invited me to lunch. Is it all right if I come back sometime?” Aurélien answered, “Only if Mummy wants you to.”
Carla says Sarkozy was ardent from the start. “That is very rare to get in a man. I was already 39 when I met him. I already had my son. So the normal situation would be to date slowly, but he’s not a slow man. He said, ‘I’m completely in love with you, and I’d really love to marry you.’ ”
“No, but soon.”
“They are hunters who met—predators,” Karl Lagerfeld tells me. “It’s a good thing. He had seduced many women, and she was a kind of seductress. When two like this meet, it can be good.”
Still, how many presidents choose to marry someone who has nude pictures of herself splashed all over the Internet? “I never realized how many nude pictures I did before I met Nicolas,” says Carla. She decided to show him the pictures herself, on her computer. “I took him and said, ‘O.K., now I need to show you, because I posed in the nude. But I never did sexy pictures.’ ” She considers nude pictures by photographers such as Helmut Newton and Steven Meisel works of art. “They’re great artists,” she says, adding, “Plus, I have a body that would allow me to pose nude without being very provocative.”
She says she told Sarkozy, looking at the nude photos, “You must know that this is going to come out.”
“And what did he say?,” I ask.
“He said, ‘Oh, I like this one! Can I have a print of it?’ ”
Soon word of the president’s new romance got out, and it spread rapidly through the gossip mill. However, there are strict laws governing privacy in France, as well as an ironclad rule to protect the president no matter what dalliances he might enter into, so the press looked the other way. For one thing, reporters were mindful of their jobs. In 2005, Sarkozy had been furious when Paris Match published a picture of Cécilia and her lover during one of the Sarkozys’ periods of estrangement. The editor was later forced out and blamed the president.
More than any other recent major French politician, Sarkozy knows how to manipulate images and dominate press coverage. But he also has a talent for undermining himself, as he did last December, for instance, when he took a foulmouthed French comic with him to meet the Pope, and then was reportedly seen text-messaging during the papal audience. His actions completely undercut the nuanced speech he gave, in which he appealed for greater religious underpinning to the secular state, a view radically at odds with the French establishment. His romance with Carla became public when he himself, after four straight days of negative press for receiving Qaddafi, apparently made the decision to turn the media in another direction. As Qaddafi was packing up his tent on a Saturday, Sarkozy took Carla and her son and mother to Disneyland Paris—incidentally, one of Cécilia’s favorite places.
Colombe Pringle, the editor of Point de Vue, a magazine owned by Belgians and thus less encumbered by French press protocol, had basically nailed down the president’s romance with three sources when she got a call on December 15 from paparazzi who said they had shot Sarkozy and Carla at Disneyland with Aurélien. Pringle was ecstatic to get the scoop, but she knew she could not be on the newsstands until the following Wednesday. Though she and her staff made every effort to keep the story secret, news of it inevitably leaked. Pringle says that the editors of the venerable L’Express magazine phoned her on Saturday night, asking if they could break her story on their Web site, and assuring her that they would give Point de Vue full credit. “Nobody dared print it,” she says. “They used us to say it.”
With that, France officially entered the tabloid age. “The separation between public life and private life is now dead,” Jean-Luc Mano told me later, “because the president, even going back to his campaign, wanted to use his wife and family to gain power, and he has opened the door for all the papers.” The following week, Libération, the left-wing newspaper, christened Sarkozy “President Bling-Bling.” And from then on, every time a publication put Sarkozy, Carla, or Cécilia on the cover or on page one, sales jumped, especially when reporters started pointing out all the similarities between Carla and Cécilia, starting with how much they looked alike. One day on a Web site the face of Carla appeared and slowly morphed into Cécilia. In January, Catherine Nay told me, “Carla is the ghost of Cécilia—a fake Cécilia.”
Two days before Christmas, Sarkozy threw a 40th-birthday party for Carla at La Lanterne, the French president’s country residence, on the grounds of Versailles. As tongues wagged and magazine sales shot up, friends of both Cécilia’s and Nicolas’s began to take sides. The full quintessence of Bling-Bling, however, came with the three-day holiday in Egypt that Sarkozy and Carla took right after Christmas. The first day’s stop, in Luxor, was followed by an outing to Sharm el-Sheikh, the next day.
Pictures of the happy couple frolicking on the beach there showed Carla in a black bikini, which prompted Closer magazine to run full-page pictures side by side of Cécilia and Carla in nearly identical bikinis. Next there was worldwide coverage of Sarkozy and Carla in jeans and designer sunglasses, arms entwined, touring the ancient monuments in Petra, Jordan, with Aurélien perched on the president’s shoulders, covering his face with his hands to shield himself from a gaggle of photographers. The next day, Le Journal du Dimanche claimed that Sarkozy had given Carla a pink heart-shaped diamond Dior ring in Egypt—the exact 18,000-euro ring he had once bought for Cécilia. The images of the two launched a thousand articles, opinion pieces, and TV loops. Commentators were quick to point out that Cécilia and Attias had also gone to Jordan, in 2005, soon after they met. Was Sarkozy sticking it to his former wife by taking Carla there?
On January 8, two days after the couple returned to Paris, Sarkozy called a press conference, and a record 600 reporters showed up. The second question was about the president’s relationship with Carla Bruni, and Sarkozy waded right in: “Carla and I have decided not to lie.… It’s serious.” By February, his approval rating had slid 10 points, in just a month. The leaders of the U.M.P. were looking ahead to municipal elections in March and beginning to worry that his amorous antics could put them in jeopardy. They were right—the U.M.P. did not do well in March, and one month later Le Monde was still annoyed with his unorthodox conduct: “He was given a warning by the polls and the municipal elections: a president doesn’t have the right to happiness, or if he does, it must be with complete discretion.”
Carla defends Sarkozy by saying that he rejected the option of staying married and leading a double life. “He’s from our generation. He doesn’t want to lie. He doesn’t want to have a second family somewhere.” She adds, “He never thought that our going to Egypt would make such a fuss. We took three days, and it lasted weeks and weeks [in the press]. It looks like we spent five weeks lying on the beach, and we spent two hours. And for one hour he talked with Bernard Kouchner, because they were working hard. I said, ‘Nicolas, it’s not fair that people think you don’t work just because you’ve been wearing jeans with me.’ ” Thereupon Carla, no slouch in the image department herself, decreed No More Jeans. She says, “It’s easy to be quieter, because we are both exhausted. Every human being has his way of filling up his life, and he’s a man who fills up his time. Maybe it’s because he is a nervous and anxious man, like sensitive people are. Me, I’m nervous and anxious, but I like to relax.”
Still, the reverberations continue to this day. Sarkozy’s approval ratings are only now beginning to inch upward, and Carla has regrets. “My mistake is that I fell madly in love and did not take the measure of how enormous this was going to be.” She claims, “I would never have gone to Petra—I would have said to Nicolas, ‘You know what? We wait six months and then we go to Petra or go to Disneyland.’ ” She says they both now realize their blunder. But she does not believe in whining: “When you have a relationship with the press, no matter what your job is, there is only one solution. Either do not court the press—and everyone is free to be unknown and have a perfectly fantastic life without being famous—or, if you expose yourself, it means there is something about you that wants to be there. It is not obligatory. I was not obliged to be a model. I was not obliged to be a singer. I could have been a doctor.”
The small wedding party for Carla and Sarkozy at La Lanterne, on February 2, capped an extraordinary period of less than four months, during which the president of France globe-trotted to Saudi Arabia, China, India, and Morocco while his official duties and the government’s programs for reform had to compete for headlines with his divorce from one woman and his meeting, courting, and marrying another. The only time I see Carla’s perfect confidence crack a little is when I ask her about all the comparisons made between her and Cécilia—going to Disneyland, loving Petra, getting the same ring. “It’s very strange—how can I say it?—a mixed situation,” she admits. “I don’t know if you have ever gone to Petra, but everyone who goes there would like it. It is one of the wonders of the world. Cécilia became engaged to Nicolas 20 years ago, and not at all with that ring. It came out that she got that ring from Christian Dior. He probably gave her many rings, but not that one.”
“He didn’t give her the ring?”
“That’s what he says.”
Carla then abruptly asks if I would like another Coca-Cola and leaves the room. When she comes back, she says, “How would I want to have a man who is 52 years old not to have a past? He would be a strange man.” She then declares that she is “O.K. with his past.”
That is fortunate, because in the month preceding their wedding three bombshell books about Cécilia were published—in spite of Cécilia’s efforts to stop the publication of one of them—and in them she accuses Sarkozy of being stingy, of loving no one, not even his children, and of not being able to remember the names of women he has slept with. Worse yet, four days after the wedding the Web site of Le Nouvel Observateur published a story about what it claimed was a text message from Sarkozy to Cécilia, telling her that if she came back to him he would “cancel everything.” Sarkozy not only angrily denied the allegation but also filed a criminal complaint for forgery that could have sent the editor, Airy Routier, to jail. At that point, the French press drew up battle lines, pro and con, regarding the president.
In March, Carla published a sophisticated op-ed piece in Le Monde, entitled “Stop the Slander,” in which she decried the use of rumor disguised as news, and announced that her husband had “just withdrawn his complaint against Le Nouvel Observateur, after receiving a letter of apology that Airy Routier wrote to me.” (Though Routier may have apologized to Carla personally, he did not publicly back down on his assertion.) People speculated that Carla had had help with writing the article, but she insists that she did not, and that neither her husband nor anyone else in the government saw it before she sent it. “It took me so much time to write, compared to a song,” she says.
The French press is still trying to come to terms with “Sarkozysme.” In May, a summit of France’s top journalists was convened, and a major topic discussed was how to cover the president. Sarkozy and his supporters argue that, at a time when there is a weakened Socialist opposition, the press should devote itself to objectively reporting the news and framing the issues instead of attempting to become the opposition. Carla attributes much of the criticism in the press to a natural pessimism in the French people, as opposed to Italians, who are more optimistic. “Cocteau said, ‘French people are Italian people in a bad mood.’ ”
Neither the press’s carping nor the electorate’s dissatisfaction has persuaded Sarkozy to scale back his goals, however. He is pressing ahead with his efforts to loosen the 35-hour-workweek rules, cut jobs in the public sector, pass a big economic modernization bill, and reconfigure the military. On the international front, in July, France under Sarkozy took over the six-month, rotating presidency of the European Union. Sarkozy, who is determined to restore la gloire de la France in the eyes of the world, is using that position to launch a kind of sister organization called the Mediterranean Union—comprising E.U. members and nearly all the other countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea—that would cooperate on regional projects and, perhaps, help lead to peace in the Middle East. But due to lukewarm support from some important countries (Germany, Algeria, Jordan) and barely masked hostility from others (Libya, Turkey), most observers are skeptical about the Union’s success.
Since her marriage, Carla has been casting off her wild, bohemian side. “I think monogamy is not an idea, it’s a fact,” she says today. Moreover, she has proved to be a great asset to her husband, for, like Ronald Reagan, she always knows which are the flattering camera angles. Catherine Nay now refers to her as “the anti-Cécilia. On their trip to South Africa, I saw her smile more in 24 hours than I saw Cécilia smile in 15 years.” Jacques Séguéla says, “She makes the president more desirable, more modern. France needs modernity, talent, cleverness. It’s like Jack and Jackie. Like Rainier and Grace Kelly. A new worldwide couple!”
I ask Carla how she likes being compared to Jackie Kennedy. She answers, “She was so young and modern, and of course unconsciously I would project myself more like Jackie Kennedy than, for instance, Madame de Gaulle, who would be much more like the classical French woman behind her husband. There is a great photograph of Madame de Gaulle serving soup to her husband. I do serve soup to my husband sometimes, but I wouldn’t get photographed that way.”
Not to be outdone, on the Sunday before Carla and Sarkozy’s visit to Queen Elizabeth, Cécilia, wearing a clinging Versace dress, exchanged vows with Attias in the Rainbow Room, at the top of Rockefeller Center, in a big, all-out New York wedding, amid rumors that Sarkozy had warned some of the high-profile guests not to attend. When I ask Carla about Cécilia’s timing, she answers, “To me, it was strange.”
Smooth operator that she is, however, Carla has cultivated a good relationship with the first Mrs. Sarkozy, Marie-Dominique, who clearly has no warm feelings for Cécilia. (In June, Marie-Dominique broke her long silence to give an interview to Caroline Derrien and Candice Nedelec, for their book Sarkozy et les Femmes, in which she is very critical of her successor.) “When I met Nicolas, she sent me a little present,” Carla says, “so I called her and said, ‘Marie, how can you be so nice?’ She said, ‘I like you. And he looks happy, and it’s been 20 years since we separated. I had a hard time with Cécilia.… But I think you can make him happy.’ Now we talk once a week, and I love her two sons. Nicolas never dropped Marie and always had a strong link with her.”
Carla invited Marie-Dominique to the star-studded surprise birthday party she threw for Sarkozy at La Lanterne in January, but she did not attend. And despite all the ongoing hostility, Carla hopes that someday she can also be friends with Cécilia. “I don’t believe in cutting out people from the past. It doesn’t give strength, it just gives loneliness.” In fact, she says, if she had her way, “I would be delighted to meet and have lunch with Cécilia, but I think she is not ready, and Nicolas is not. They are still burned by their love—which proves they had a very strong love.” According to friends, Carla can afford to be magnanimous. “She did not have to put up for 20 previous years with having your husband get there,” says her friend Danièle Thompson. “That’s what Cécilia got. Carla is getting the president—plucking the flower when it is in bloom.”
Carla is fully immersed in learning the job Cécilia said she didn’t want—being First Lady of France. So far, she has made few public appearances on French soil. A notable exception was her attendance at the funeral of designer Yves Saint Laurent, for whom she once modeled. Towering between her husband and Saint Laurent’s former partner, Pierre Bergé, the First Lady, glamorous in black Saint Laurent slacks, stood out among all the other great beauties there, including Catherine Deneuve and Claudia Schiffer.
“I am looking for something useful to do,” she tells me. “I get piles of information about what I could do for culture, for children, education, unhappy situations. But I need to study. I don’t want to make the wrong move, and I don’t want to go up against my husband.” It is not exactly an automatic switch, from the studiously cool world Carla used to inhabit to the fiercely scrutinized, 24-hour news cycle of political life. “Learning the code” is how she describes it. “When you are a songwriter and you say, ‘I like polyandry, ha, ha, ha,’ it is written down and it doesn’t matter. But if you’re a First Lady and you say, ‘I like Coca-Cola Light,’ it’s a drama. I have to pay attention to every detail, and that is very new for me.”
Her fantasy at 40 is to give birth to a baby at the Élysée. “I’d love to have children with Nicolas. I hope to, if I am young enough. It would be a dream.” Nevertheless, she has ruled out fertility programs. “If it comes, I’d be the happiest person in the world, but if it doesn’t come, I’m not going to tempt the Devil.” Lighting another slim cigarette, Carla says, “If life doesn’t give me another child, well, it has given me so much already.”
Her new album, Comme Si de Rien N’Était (As If Nothing Happened), was released on July 11. She will not be able to do a concert tour, but she and her husband both want her to continue her career. “What will the balance be between public and private because she is a public figure?” asks Alain Minc, the chairman of the board of Le Monde and a close friend of Sarkozy’s. “It’s absolutely uncharted territory.” No one is more keenly aware than Carla herself that just one year ago she was a dumped single mother at a low point of her life. She has gone back into analysis and jokes that even her therapist is dumbfounded by all that has changed in her life. “It’s unbelievable,” she says, giggling and burying her face in a sofa pillow. “I was Italian! How can I be the First Lady of France?”
Jacques Séguéla has the answer: “We are the country of love.”
With French research by Matt Pressman.
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