Now that Carla Bruni is no longer France’s First Lady, she might have expected the spotlight to be back on her music career with the release of her fourth album, Little French Songs. But her husband, Nicolas Sarkozy, is once more in the headlines, under investigation for financially taking advantage of France’s richest woman as he thinks of running for president again. Bruni talks to Maureen Orth about the scandal, the status of her much-talked-about successor, Valérie Trierweiler, and the dynamics of late motherhood.
No matter how you drop a cat, it lands on its feet. “I’m a cat,” declares Carla Bruni. “You know, cats don’t like to go outside. They actually drop their smell all over a place, and that becomes their place. So when you live with a cat, you actually live at the cat’s house.” Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, whom Bruni—singer-songwriter, model, and male fantasy extraordinaire—married in 2008, shortly after he was elected, knows that. All during their marriage he has resided at her house, in Paris’s 16th Arrondissement, with a living room filled with a piano and recording equipment. “You can’t leave a dog alone for a week—it suffers,” she continues. “A cat is not exactly the same. It suffers from leaving the house and likes to be alone in a warmer place, like me.” Dressed down in jeans and projecting a remarkably feline air herself, Bruni is talking with me on the occasion of the release of her fourth album, Little French Songs. She actually undulates her lithe body, imitating a cat on the prowl: “He likes to adapt himself to the situation, and he never breaks anything—ashtrays, glasses, bottles.” She is puffing mint and pawing the vapors released from an electronic cigarette. “My cat walks on the piano—poof, poof, poof. I like this suppleness. I don’t see why we should resist situations. I think adaptability is a major point for anyone.”
That is certainly true for Bruni, who at 45 has had six or seven lives already. Born in Turin into a very rich industrialist family, she was brought to live in France as a little girl and was told only at the age of 28, as her father lay dying, that he was not her biological parent. Her real father had been a young classical guitarist, also from a wealthy Italian family, who toured with her mother, a concert pianist twice his age. By 19, Carla was a sought-after model, and along the way she acquired languages and millions of frequent-flier miles. She was featured on 250 magazine covers. For seven years she was seen off and on at exotic locales with Mick Jagger, while he was married to Jerry Hall, and she gained a reputation as a female Don Juan, picking and choosing among artists, politicians, and intellectuals. Five and a half years ago, not long after being dumped by the handsome, younger philosopher Raphaël Enthoven, the father of her now 11-year-old son, and facing 40, Bruni met Sarkozy at a small dinner party. The president, alone and miserable in the Élysée Palace since his second wife, Cécilia, had left him for the New York event organizer Richard Attias, was enchanted by the little French songs his new acquaintance breathily crooned to him after dinner. For the next few months, explosive headlines documented the lovers, first on a carefully staged outing to Disneyland Paris, where paparazzi snapped them, followed by a trip to the ruins of Petra, in Jordan, where he wore jeans and Ray-Bans, cementing his nickname in the press as President Bling-Bling. Sarkozy and Bruni wed on February 2, 2008, just in time for her to meet the Queen of England as France’s official First Lady.
I last interviewed Carla Bruni for this magazine shortly after their marriage, in her Paris living room. We were alone, without handlers, and she seemed ruffled only once, when I brought up the fact that the press was reporting that Sarkozy had given her a pink-diamond engagement ring identical to the one he had given Cécilia. At that point she excused herself to get another Diet Coke. For this interview we were in a chic and ornate hotel near her house, and her publicist and close friend from her fashion days, Véronique Rampazzo, stayed in the room but off to the side, with her back to us. This time again, Carla would excuse herself once, to wash her hands when she needed to figure out how to answer an uncomfortable question I asked her about one of her new songs, which appeared to make fun of her husband’s successor.
That week headlines were blaring in France, and the fireworks surrounding the former president were threatening to overwhelm the media blitz organized to launch Bruni’s first album in almost five years. After Sarkozy, who had run far to the right, lost the election, last May, to the Socialist François Hollande, he declared that he was through with politics forever: “C’est fini.” Today, no longer protected by presidential immunity, he is facing inquiries or allegations on five different fronts, including a polling scandal in which the Élysée allegedly gave millions of euros in non-competitive contracts to close pals of the president’s in order to sound out the French electorate on several questions, including whether Sarkozy’s relationship with Carla Bruni was an issue that affected the public. (Of those polled, 89 percent said it was a private matter.) His supporters want voters to believe that these probes are politically motivated, particularly since Sarkozy has said that duty might force him to reconsider his decision to leave politics, inasmuch as Hollande’s poll numbers are at a 30-year low for a president, unemployment—which stands at 10.8 percent—is at a 14-year high, and anxiety among the French is running rampant. “Nobody knows where the country is going,” the journalist Christine Ockrent told me. Even though the next election is four years away, Sarkozy can’t, or won’t, get off the stage and leave the limelight to his wife.
How did things come to this pass? While Bruni was in Berlin in March, performing “Mon Raymond,” a peppery love song about her husband, at the Echo Music Awards, a magistrate in Bordeaux stunned the country by declaring Sarkozy the object of an official investigation—tantamount to an indictment, the next-to-last formal step before accusing someone of a criminal offense. The investigation centers on whether Sarkozy “abused the frailty” of France’s richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, now 90, by allegedly accepting cash stuffed in envelopes from her for his 2007 campaign. The charge was not for campaign fraud, which has a shorter statute of limitations, but for elder abuse, and it came about as a peripheral matter in the long-running battle—which has since been settled—between Bettencourt and her daughter over the mother’s competence to manage the family’s $30 billion fortune. Sarkozy was drawn into the affair in 2010, after several shocking revelations (including those by a butler who had made secret tape recordings), and was accused of coming to the house in 2007 to ask for money—a charge the ex-president furiously denied. After subjecting Sarkozy to 12 hours of interrogation and later forcing him to face four former members of Liliane Bettencourt’s household staff in person, however, the magistrate, Jean-Michel Gentil, clearly thought otherwise. Because justice moves so slowly in France, with no set timetable for the legal situation to be clarified, the investigation could cripple Sarkozy’s chances for a political comeback.
While Sarkozy confined himself to a Facebook comment repudiating the “unjust and unfounded” charges, his lawyer and a former top aide viciously went on the attack to impugn the integrity of Gentil, one of three judges who have been investigating the case (the other two are women). The judges use a team of special investigators to cull the evidence both for and against a defendant, but they also have the authority to request that the defendant be put in jail while awaiting the results of the investigation. “The judge has to collect the information which can either help or charge Sarkozy,” says Jean-Luc Mano, a well-known French political consultant. “A lot of people consider that it is not possible for the same judge to do both things.” Last June, just days before issuing a warrant to have Sarkozy’s house searched, Gentil, along with 81 other magistrates, signed a letter to the newspaper Le Monde to decry the “long period” of lack of prosecution of financial misconduct in France. The letter did not mention Sarkozy by name. Sarkozy, however, had for years declared war on the judiciary in France and campaigned to eliminate certain kinds of judges. “Sarkozy has been extremely hard on judges,” Ockrent tells me, “and he has expressed his contempt many times.”
Even so, many on both sides of the political spectrum were taken aback by the elder-abuse charge. “It’s really unbelievable that Sarkozy is accused on that claim,” says Ockrent. “If he got money from the Bettencourts to illegally finance his campaign in 2007, that’s another case.” Mano agrees: “Even the Socialists don’t understand this. This charge is very … exotique.” It could also be very politically damaging. “Maybe in France the majority of the people think that political leaders take [illegal] money,” says Mano, but, he adds, “this is a Latin country. We don’t joke about old people. They are a very important part of our culture.”
In “Mon Raymond,” Bruni describes Sarkozy as a pirate and an atomic bomb.
“Well, the atomic bomb has detonated,” I tell her.
“It’s crazy,” she says. “In America they are very careful about someone being objective, right? If you take a political position, being a judge, then you cannot judge the person you’ve been fighting. Otherwise it means a political, personal thing.”
“Are you talking about this particular judge?”
“Yes. In America, in general, if a judge writes something against you in a paper, then he can hardly judge you.” She adds, “Justice has to be objective and not political. . . . This judge wrote an article [the aforementioned letter] six days before [the search warrant]. So that’s strange.”
Later that day, in an interview with a Parisian paper, Bruni would shed a tear over the situation, and she choked up while talking about it on the radio. As a result, most talk about her album was lost.
Two days after our interview, France was again shocked to learn that Gentil and two prominent journalists had each received a death threat and a blank bullet cartridge in the mail. The judge’s letter also threatened members of the left-leaning Union of Magistrates, to which Judge Gentil does not belong. “If anything he is a man of the Right,” according to one colleague. France’s magistrates’ unions wasted no time linking the threats to the attacks on the judge by Sarkozy’s camp. While the top French anti-terrorist unit was ordered to investigate, France’s minister of justice called for the council that oversees magistrates to issue an opinion on the conduct of Sarkozy’s outspoken former aide. Until that opinion was rendered, Sarkozy said, he would not appeal the charge. Bruni, meanwhile, announced that she would stop talking about the subject entirely.
But she had already told me, when commenting on the length of time these cases can take, “It’s done on purpose.”
Although Bruni had almost finished her album by 2011, it wasn’t considered appropriate to release it while she was First Lady. To get her own campaign rolling at last, she first released “Chez Keith et Anita,” an up-tempo song with a Latin beat meant to recall the early, globe-trotting, drug-fueled days of the Rolling Stones—which she would have been too young to experience—but also to remind us, surely, of Mick and Carla. That song did not seem to generate the buzz she was looking for, but the next pre-release, “Le Pingouin,” did. “Le Pingouin” begins with a ticktock ticktock that suggests the awkward gait of a penguin, a pejorative term in French that means an oaf or buffoon. Because of the harsh lyrics describing an ill-bred, indecisive person—“neither yes nor no”—the French press immediately speculated that the song referred to François Hollande, who has also been tagged Mr. Neither-Yes-nor-No, as well as Mr. Flanby (as in the custard). In addition, in the power handoff last May, Hollande neglected to honor tradition and walk Sarkozy and Bruni down the steps of the Élysée to their waiting car. At first Bruni did not discourage speculation as to who the penguin in her song was, but when I pressed her on it now, she refused to go there.
“I swear, Maureen, it’s not related to that. You believe the penguin could be someone special, but it wasn’t anyone special when I wrote it.” Despite my skepticism, she went on to insist that the penguin stood for ill-mannered people in general, including one of her neighbors. “It’s ‘Oh, you gained weight.’ ‘You look tired.’ ‘You had a bad holiday, right?’ Some people put you down.” I said I remained unconvinced, and that’s when she excused herself to wash her hands. She came back saying, “So, the penguin is a metaphor. Everyone has his own penguins.”
Ironically, Sarkozy is the one who is often described as brash or abrupt with people, while Bruni is noted for her manners. “People at the Élysée say she was very kind to them,” an official of Hollande’s government told me. When we spoke in 2008, Bruni said she was going to learn the code of the Élysée and how to be a First Lady. Today she claims it was easy. “I love to follow rules. I don’t like to be on the outside,” she tells me, despite writing the song “Not a Lady,” which includes the lyrics “I’d rather be a witch, a virgin, or some old nun.” She says that meticulous protocol made everything easy when she met the Queen at Windsor Castle. “Most people think it’s a weight, but it’s actually a help—it’s like someone holding your hand,” she says. “I like it when everything works smoothly with people.” Bruni did not look particularly dressed up when she left the Élysée for the last time, and her nondescript gray pantsuit and T-shirt caused speculation that she was subtly telegraphing “Good riddance. I’ve had it.”
Not at all, she explains. “Those were the only pants I could get into!” Motherhood at 43 had been difficult.
Giulia, their daughter, was born 19 months ago, just as the presidential campaign was gearing up to full speed. “It was a very fragile moment in my life,” Bruni says. “I’m kind of tall, with good-size shoulders, and when I am 40 pounds overweight, I don’t even look fat—I just look ugly. . . . Having children when you’re older is not easy.” Like many older moms, Bruni found the recovery difficult. “It’s very hard to diet, being exhausted,” she tells me. “And just put that on top of a presidential campaign—I was dead. Breast-feeding the little girl, waking up every two hours at night because she was hungry. And then during the day following my man.”
“And you had to make all those campaign appearances?”
“Exactly at the time of my life when I would beg not to be photographed. It becomes like a war.” Bruni was particularly stung by criticisms of her appearance in the press, especially in the U.S. “They say, ‘She’s fat.’ They get really nasty. Nothing is out of bounds.” She says she tried her best, but, “being so tired and depressed, I didn’t even care about my hair and makeup.” She had just one thought: “Let me go home and sleep.” So, when it came time to say good-bye to the Élysée, she faced a choice: “Do I throw away my whole wardrobe, or do I try to lose the weight, or just stay fat and buy new pants?” The weight, she explains, came off in stages.
After Sarkozy lost, everyone on his campaign was spent. It had been a tough battle on both sides, and I had heard that Bruni was angry and resentful that people had let her husband down. She denies it. “I don’t think anger is a solution, to tell you the truth,” she says. “You can’t get married to a man like Nicolas, being in the position I was when I married him, without having to face brutality and violence. But it’s a very strange type of brutality, because it’s only related to your image, not to yourself.” Bruni took her cue from Sarkozy, who remained undaunted. “On May 7, the day after the election, he said, ‘O.K., let’s travel, and then I’m going to learn to speak English.’ And I said, ‘We’re half dead. We should rest,’ and he said no, no, no, he didn’t need to.” The French government pays for his office and a retinue of aides, and Sarkozy, who is a lawyer, now has to decide whether to keep his options open for a comeback in politics, depending on the results of the ongoing investigations, or to cash in with a rumored private-equity fund backed by Qatar. “He would be a good everything; he would be a good journalist, a good songwriter, because it’s the way he puts himself completely into his work,” his adoring wife declares. “He has no melancholy.”
Wagging tongues on both sides of the Atlantic predicted that Bruni would leave Sarkozy once he was no longer in power. “That’s crazy,” she says, adding that actually the opposite was true. “Because power was one of the problems that we had to face together. Power is not a pleasure. It makes you vulnerable. There was something very nice about representing France. It was about honor, but it was not about power. Power is brutal, and you have to be very structured inside to cope with power without getting blown away. I never used that power I was supposed to have, not even one day, only to help people sometimes—when people asked me for help, people who were in hospitals or in difficult situations.”
In fact, Bruni used her Élysée office only occasionally, to answer mail. She began a privately funded foundation to help make education, culture, and the arts more available to the poor, but she describes her style as First Lady as “laid-back” and “non-interfering.” According to Ockrent, “She would not pretend that politics was suddenly her passion.” Besides, First Ladies of France are not automatically expected to maintain a full slate of causes and appearances, as American First Ladies do, unless they really want to. Some, including Danielle Mitterrand and Claude Pompidou, clearly did. During her husband’s time in office, Bruni continued to rely on her old team of agents and publicists from her days of modeling and music, instead of on the Élysée, for much of her interaction with the outside world. “It was so much easier,” says Véronique Rampazzo, who is Giulia’s godmother, “because I already knew the answers to 98 percent of the questions.”
‘Did she do anything for France? Not really, unless we don’t know about it,” says a friend of mine who married into an old French family. “They liked her because she was presentable. If you act like them, they accept you. Carla Bruni figured it out.” But that is decidedly a minority view. Again and again I was told what a great job Bruni had done representing France abroad, wearing French fashion and charming everyone from Queen Elizabeth to Nelson Mandela. “Carla performed as First Lady very well,” says Ockrent. “She was beautiful and elegant and gave an image of the country on any trip abroad that was positive and flattering.”
Some people, like Colombe Pringle, editor of Point de Vue, France’s high-society magazine, didn’t buy all of it: “When she met the Queen, everybody said she looked like Jackie Kennedy. Not at all. With her little stewardess hat she looked like a good girl coming out of the convent. Then, when she was sitting in Westminster listening to her husband give a speech, with her legs off to the side like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, that wasn’t normal or natural. She doesn’t behave or sit like that. She was playing it.” But in the end? “She overdid it a bit,” says Pringle, “but she tried to do her best.”
Jean-Luc Mano sees Bruni as far more important than that, and crucial to Sarkozy’s ongoing political ambitions. “If Sarkozy is not an advantage for the career of Carla, Carla is an advantage for the career of Sarkozy. French people like this woman. They love her elegance, and they loved the role she played with Sarkozy as First Lady.” He says that because of the devotion she has demonstrated she makes it safe for the French to fall in love with her husband all over again. “In France we like kings, especially after they have been beheaded.”
I ask Bruni if she wants to go back to the Élysée Palace. “Neither my choice nor my opinion counts in such a matter. It’s very much up first of all to France and then to my husband and to my husband’s work, to my husband’s life. I can only follow him.” Really? “Yes, because as a person, as a woman, or as a wife or even a mom, I feel much safer now. It’s much calmer.”
“But the way you’re talking about it, you have to be the little wife who follows your husband? You have no say in the matter?”
“I wouldn’t say that. He listens to my advice a lot. He’s very much concerned about his family, much more than when he was younger. Probably his ambition is also the happiness of his family. But I don’t know about tigers becoming vegetarians! I keep serving salad.”
During our previous interview, when Bruni was a newlywed, she told me that there was a famous photo of Mrs. de Gaulle serving her husband soup. She told me then that she also sometimes served her husband soup, but that she wouldn’t be photographed like that. This time she says, “He’s such a gentleman that I don’t mind being in a very feminine position with him.”
“But what about the soup?”
“I wouldn’t mind, but it wouldn’t be an image I would try to project. Of course I serve him. Women today share so many things besides meals with their men. But I must say I never thought I could enjoy being a wife so much.” For Bruni it is all about “feeling protected and not facing life alone.”
This blissful picture of matrimonial harmony between Bruni and Sarkozy stands in stark contrast to the tangled situation of her husband’s already beleaguered rival, the current president of France. François Hollande carried on an affair with the beautiful, married Paris Match writer Valérie Trierweiler, a mother of three, for about two years while he was still attached to the unmarried mother of his four children, Ségolène Royal, the Socialist presidential candidate whom Sarkozy defeated in 2007. As a result, Trierweiler, now divorced, has tried so hard and committed so many faux pas in her effort to be recognized as the First Lady that she has made herself possibly the most disliked woman in France. On a recent trip Hollande made to the French countryside, for example, TV reporters picked up a woman in the crowd telling him, “Please don’t marry her. We don’t like her.” Thus we have the delicious spectacle of Carla Bruni, the reformed libertine, in a position to opine on how much easier it is to behave conventionally.
“It’s a very difficult position to be in,” Bruni says of Trierweiler. “I wouldn’t judge—you know me.”
“But you did say once that it’s just easier in the job if you’re married.”
“That’s what I think. It’s just an observation. When we got married, it gave peace to the whole situation, because this is a very official place you are dealing with, and an official place cannot be dealing with ambiguity. So it’s not easy not to be married.” She hastens to add, “You can be perfectly together and not be married. That’s not the point. Marriage doesn’t save love from disaster. It was easier for me to be legally married, yes, and to have my own place—clear, clean, legal. It felt very good, and I felt legitimate, coming from such a different world, from show business.”
In the course of her marriage, Bruni says, she has made peace with Cécilia Sarkozy, who is now Cécilia Attias of New York, the mother of Sarkozy’s third son, who is in military school in the U.S. Bruni has a much warmer relationship with Marie-Dominique, Sarkozy’s first wife and the mother of his two older sons, and little Giulia has become very attached to her. In addition, Bruni is step-grandmother to the two young children of one of Sarkozy’s sons. “I’d rather be a young grandma than an old girl,” she says.
Bruni tells me that, although she does not practice a religion, one song on her new album, “Prière” (Prayer), is about spiritual yearning, and she did have Giulia baptized. “In Italy it is more than ‘just in case.’ It’s more like tradition, like religion, is part of one’s roots, so we have Christian roots and Jewish roots.” (Bruni and Sarkozy each had a Jewish grandparent.) She shows me a picture of the sweet, blonde little girl on her iPhone. “She is so Sarkozy,” Bruni says. “Nicolas has found his master. I think between our age and the fact that she’s a girl, we’re both melting, basically, you know?”
During our first interview, Bruni told me she was in analysis. “Are you still?,” I ask. “Double the doses,” she says playfully. “I think I will be there until I die.” She feels it’s all about taking responsibility. “If we talk now and we disagree, for instance, there’s nothing I can do about you disagreeing, right? I can try to convince you, but there is nothing I can do. But there is something I can do about me. So that’s what I like about therapy.” She continues, “It brings me to lucidity, because there’s nothing I can do to change someone else, but there is something I can do to change myself. And I like this type of work because with aging, if there is no philosophy, there’s no serenity, there’s no wisdom, there’s nothing but falling apart. Wrinkles without wisdom are boring. I want to become mature. I want to become wise.”
Original Publication: Vanity Fair, June 2013.