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Sunday 30 March 2008

'Wow' factor on the world stage -- no, not you, Sarko

The demure Carla Bruni has slotted effortlessly into her new role as France's first lady, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

The contrast was beautifully symbolised by two photographs of Carla that appeared last week. In the first, which dates from 1993, she was wearing absolutely nothing, although her hands were clasped modestly over what the 'Daily Star' called her crown jewels. In the second, taken as she came down the steps of her new husband's presidential plane, she was kitted out rather like a modest, though elegant, nun, from her little black beret down to her black pumps.

She seemed to me to look a lot better with her clothes on, but then she is, after all, a clothes horse by profession. But there's much more to her than that. She is as cultivated as might be expected of the child of a concert pianist and a wealthy classical composer, dabbled in art and architecture as a student and later abandoned modelling to become a very successful song-writer and chanteuse.

It was the public nature of 40-year old's racy past that unnerved the French when their new president took up with her. The French don't mind what anyone does in private, but they hate anything undecorous: that Sarkozy was so infatuated with Carla that he was checking for text messages while meeting the pope caused national embarrassment. Carla, however, even though she has lived in France since she was five, is very Italian in certain respects, and has enjoyed being involved in high-profile, tempestuous and well-chronicled affairs with famous Alpha males, including Eric Clapton, and Mick Jagger, Donald Trump and even the former French prime minister Laurent Fabius. She doesn't hang about when she loses interest. "I'm monogamous from time to time," she once famously said, "but I prefer polygamy and polyandry."

Her earlier marriage was wonderfully French, for like many beautiful French women, she finds intellectuals attractive. Having moved in with the writer and publisher Jean-Paul Enthoven, she decided she preferred his son, Raphael, a philosophy professor and removed him from his wife Justine Levy, daughter of the philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who ultimately had her revenge in a vicious novel in which a thinly disguised Bruni was described as 'a praying mantis with Terminator smile' Carla and Raphael married and had a son, but she got bored and moved on -- ultimately to Nicolas Sarkozy, whom she married after an 80-day romance.

Carla hasn't had much time for the makeover into first lady, but she's done it stunningly. If the British press are to be believed, her demure and diffident charm coupled with her looks, elegance and linguistic ability have charmed everyone she met; she even produced a perfect curtsy. What is more, she mostly seems to have kept her Tiggerish husband from making an idiot of himself. He did have a moment of rage when a French journalist suggested Carla had stolen the show and was accused of having a 'very insensitive experience of marriage'. Sarkozy quivered with passion when he said that Carla had "been an honour to our country, not simply because of the way she looks, but beyond that everyone understands that this is a woman who has belief, sensitivity and humanity". Certainly Carla did her best not to upstage him, not least in the height department: she, 5' 9", wore pumps and flat hair; he, 5' 5'', wore three-inch stacked heels. Some thought Sarko went rather over the top in the speech to the joint houses of parliament about the wonderfulness of Britain, how it taught the world about democracy and then saved it from Hitler.

But it's a nice change for the Brits to have someone saying something nice about them: as one journalist observed, they've remembered they quite like the French after all. Has anything of substance come from this superficially successful state visit? Less than meets the eye, I'd say. Sarko is trying to outflank Angela Merkel, with whom he doesn't get on, by forming an alliance with Gordon Brown. There was a lot of guff from Brown about the shared vision of a "global Europe" and the prospect of an 'entente formidable' between the two.

Yes, in theory they intend to co-operate on Afghanistan, nuclear energy, sending African children to school and a whole manner of other good things. But when you look at the small print, the French, as usual, want everything on their terms. And there is little chance of a decent relationship evolving between the volatile, excitable Sarko and the dithering, gloomy Cromwellian now depressing Britain. '"It is more than a one-night stand," said Sarko apropos Brown. "We will go into the next-day breakfast."

One hopes for his sake that Carla sees things in the same way.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards