France's First Lady lives a pampered, cloistered existence and regularly abuses her privileged position
Carla Bruni, the former model and pop-singer wife of Nicolas Sarkozy, is overrated rather in the same way that the concept of French sophistication is overrated. The latter works best in the minds of the impressionable, or for those who haven’t eaten in a restaurant in Paris recently. The chic for which the French are well known must still exist somewhere, although it’s certainly no longer on the streets of the capital. There was in any case always something unconsciously retro about le style français. Like those groups of French teenagers who still insist on sitting on the city’s stone steps, drumming guitars, earnest faces obscured by long hair (but long in the wrong way), French sophistication has the ring of the Seventies about it — of Regine’s nightclub, naff music and the kidnappings of rich Eurotrash by revolutionary groups.
Welcome to Carla’s world. It’s one which fascinates many people, we are told. But who exactly? When she accompanied her husband on a state visit to Britain just after they married in 2008, there was certainly breathless, drooling coverage — but it was to be found in the broadsheets. With her understated, chic little Jackie O numbers and aura of unyielding good taste, she was never going to be a favourite with the tabloids, whose readers are simply not that interested in her. But the “serious” papers went wild for her, reflecting the priorities and tastes of what we might call the new establishment, the political class which has little time for, say, royal consorts of the old school, but is bedazzled by fame, fashion and mostly, by money. This is the elite which looks outward from these shores, which is internationalist in its bones, which considers the homegrown simply too provincial. It is the elite which makes deals on yachts off the coast of Corfu, admires perception over reality, and maintains a state of mind of perpetual counter-cultural rebellion. For the members of this club, Carla is obviously somebody to be admired, a modern-day role model, an icon, and all those other words which have been rendered meaningless by over-use.
Bruni is the daughter of privilege. Born in Turin, she is heiress to an Italian tyre manufacturing company, and it was indeed fears of possible kidnapping by the Red Brigades which led the family to move to France in 1975. Happily for young Carla and her siblings, her parents seem to have had that healthy disregard for the filthy lucre one often finds in the filthy rich. They were not, she has said, interested “in the power of money”. She put this down to the fact that they 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.” However, she later revealed that her biological father was in fact a young classical guitarist with whom her mother had enjoyed a long affair. A young guitarist, yes — but one who also happened to be a food magnate in his own right. So far, so mini-series.
Leaving school for the catwalk, she hit the “Supermodel” second wave, becoming one of fashion’s best known faces, working for Dior, Givenchy and Yves Saint-Laurent. There were well-publicised affairs with Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton. Modelling eventually gave way to her music career and some nude photoshoots, although these were done only in the best possible taste of course. In 2001, she had a son with Raphaël Enthoven, a professor and media figure (only the best for Carla). Variously described as an “alpha female” and a “female womaniser”, she once went into therapy to get over what she described as “my narcissism”. She might still have some work to do, if her self-serving pronouncements are anything to go by. Of her husband, soon re-christened President Bling-Bling, she told Vanity Fair: “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 nervous and anxious, like sensitive people are. Me, I’m nervous and anxious, but I like to relax.”
Carla and Nicolas, both sensitive souls, are not unlike our own Tony and Cherie — fascinated with themselves and determined to share that fascination with us. Carla continues to sing and will appear in Woody Allen’s next film. Her indulgent husband even lets her play the odd political game, as when she tried to get an Italian terrorist friend released from a French jail. The Sarkozys live at the centre of a court protected by strict privacy laws, surrounded by an elite drawn unashamedly from the same schools and colleges. Britain’s royal family can only dream of such deference. It is supremely ironic that at the centre of the great French republic glitters a woman of immense wealth, for whom no door seems closed. Meanwhile, our supposedly exclusively hereditary monarch — courtless, battered by criticism and constantly trimming its sails — will soon welcome into its midst the daughter of a small provincial businessman, a woman who, one imagines, already instinctively understands that the position is greater than the person.