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Love in Paris at Elysee Palace

The French president's reputed fiancee is a chanteuse, an heiress and a former supermodel.

January 08, 2008|Geraldine Baum | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — If this story turned up on daytime TV, audiences would never believe it:

The reformist president of France, on the rebound from his October divorce, is about take a new wife -- an Italian tire heiress and former supermodel who looks a lot like the ex, and who dated Eric Clapton, whom she dumped for Mick Jagger when he was still married to Jerry Hall, and who later married a long-haired French intellectual nearly 10 years her junior after living with his father, nearly 20 years her senior. There was a dalliance with Donald Trump and a former French prime minister, but those were epochs ago.

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The whirlwind romance between French President Nicolas Sarkozy, 52, and glamorous chanteuse Carla Bruni, 40, reportedly is leading to marriage. They made their affair public during their visit last month to EuroDisney with their respective children from previous marriages, as well as over the holidays, which saw them canoodling on the banks of the Nile, and last weekend, which they spent camel-riding in Jordan.

Le Journal du Dimanche, owned by a wealthy friend of the president, ran a front-page story over the weekend saying Sarkozy and Bruni would marry Feb. 8 or 9. One would suspect the newspaper fact-checked this carefully, given that the last time a magazine owned by this same friend ran a story about the president's personal life that Sarkozy didn't like, the editor got fired.

The marriage report fits with another that had Sarkozy asking Bruni's mother, Marisa, for her daughter's hand. "I said to him, 'Monsieur le President, I have no reason to object.' . . . Carla is living an authentic love story," she told an Italian newspaper. "They make a great couple."

The president's mother, Andrea, isn't so sure. "In his job he will be spoiled with choices," she told a magazine. "But I hope that no one will get married again. I have had enough of brides."

The person the president pays to speak for him, David Martinon, is apparently the only one not commenting on the prospect of a wedding. But Sarkozy is expected to update everybody on his private life at today's traditional New Year news conference at the Elysee Palace, with more than 450 journalists in attendance.

The president's critics, many of whom dislike his center-right politics, are already fed up with his giddy new love. They say he's using it to distract from a further slide in the economy, which has left voters feeling they have less buying power than at any time since the early 1990s. It's not the first time, they charge, that he has used his personal life to divert attention from more pressing issues of state.

He ended his stormy 11-year marriage to Cecilia Sarkozy on Oct. 15, just as he was about to take on powerful unions that were threatening a prolonged strike over his effort to reform the state pension system. The unions backed down temporarily; his tall, slender wife, also a former model but with no interest in being first lady, went off to London; and the president's approval rating remained high.

A few weeks later, he met Bruni at a dinner party at Versailles and the oh-so-public courting began.

Now, for the first time since Sarkozy became president last year, his approval rating has dipped to around 50%. One poll over the weekend found less than half of respondents had confidence he could solve the nation's biggest problems, a drop of 7 percentage points. Although the main cause of his slump is frustration with the economy, Sarkozy's jet-setting and love life have particularly alienated older voters.

Christine Clerc, a political analyst and a first lady expert, said that although the French traditionally don't care about their presidents' personal lives -- which often include voracious womanizing and illegitimate children -- many people aren't comfortable with so much high living thrown in their faces. Clerc suspected that photographs of the vacationing Sarkozy and Bruni in matching Ray-Bans were mulled at holiday dinners.

"I know it was at my house," said Clerc, noting how surprised she was when her newly married son piped up with: "You don't change wives like you're changing watches."

But on that account, Clerc said, Bruni might help Sarkozy with his image. During the holidays, he gave her a heart-shaped pink diamond ring designed by Victoire de Castellane of Dior while she reportedly replaced his flashy Rolex with a classy Swiss watch in gray steel.

"She comes from a nice family; maybe she'll give him some elegant taste," Clerc said.

Bruni was not the typical supermodel. She was born in Turin, the daughter of Alberto Bruni Tedeschi, an opera-composing industrialist whose family owned the Ceat tire empire. Her mother is a concert pianist. The family left for Paris in the mid-1970s after too many kidnappings of industrialists and their families.

Bruni, who speaks three languages, attended finishing school in Switzerland and studied art in Paris before launching a modeling career that led to her being on more than 250 magazine covers as well as the face of the Guess? jeans advertising campaign. By the time she quit, she was earning a reported $7.5 million a year.

She has also had success with her soft, husky voice, selling almost 2 million copies of her first album, "Quelqu'un m'a Dit" (Someone Told Me).

What is unclear is whether such an independent woman could carry out the selfless duties of a first lady and withstand public pressure.

"Now she's in a new love with people writing very positive things about her and it's very pleasant," Clerc said. "But when people want to criticize the king, they often begin by criticizing the queen. This has not changed since Marie Antoinette."

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