In a span of three months, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has divorced his tempestuous wife Cécilia and shacked up with a supermodel-turned-popstar. The rookie head of state has flaunted new girlfriend Carla Bruni everywhere from the Mickey Mouse parade at Euro Disney to a Red Sea beach holiday. He's dismayed and puzzled conservative host nations like India over protocol for presidential partners. Then, on Tuesday, Sarkozy all but confirmed he's to marry the Italian-born tire heiress. Do the French care? Less than you'd think. Is this man crazy? Like a fox.
Sarkozy and Bruni are thought to have met Nov. 23 at an Elysée Palace function, five weeks after his divorce. Their romance became public on Dec. 16, when the couple visited the Paris version of Disneyland with Bruni's mother and 6-year-old son, Aurélien. Later that month, Sarkozy took Bruni on a Christmas holiday to Egypt. Eager photographers trailed them, snapping photos of an unshaven Sarkozy, his hand on Bruni's bare midriff as they toured the Great Pyramids, and of the couple in swimsuits at the beach. Next stop was a weekend in Jordan as guests in King Abdullah II's holiday residence. The 52-year-old Sarkozy, in aviator sunglasses, was pictured ferrying Aurélien through Petra on his shoulders. And then there was Bruni's showcasing of a pink heart-shaped diamond ring. At a press conference Tuesday, Sarkozy answered nuptial rumors with feigned evasion, "It's serious. But [one Sunday newspaper] isn't going to set the date." He added coyly, "There's a good chance you'll only learn about it once it's already happened." Bruni, meanwhile, is said to have moved into the Elysée over the past week. The daily Le Parisien reported Wednesday, "A room has been specially reserved for her to work on her songs."
Bruni, 39, might seem out of place at the First Ladies' table. In France, she's reputed to be a "man eater," a prolific "praying mantis" and has called herself a "polygamist" bored by monogamy. Her conquests reportedly include Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and former French Socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius. She met the father of her child, the philosopher Raphaël Enthoven, while she was dating Enthoven's father. And she is alleged to have broken up Enthoven's marriage to the daughter of philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy. Her folksy songs don't scream modesty. "I know some in every port/In every South, in every North/I know some without trying/I know some who'll say I'm damned good/And that makes me smile," she sang on her hit debut album, "Quelqu'un m'a Dit," in 2002. Spurred by the Sarkozy news, the online social network Facebook now has 148 groups devoted to Bruni, several of which claim to reunite those who "have (yet) to sleep with Carla Bruni" and video-sharing site YouTube.com is awash with off-color parodies of Bruni songs.
Not surprisingly, the French media are eating it up. But the French themselves aren't as interested as you might think. During his news conference yesterday, Sarkozy defended his behavior, claiming a "break with a deplorable tradition of our political life—of hypocrisy, of lies." He alluded to the veil of silence that surrounded late President François Mitterrand; the media knew Mitterrand kept a mistress and a secret daughter. But there are signs the French preferred it that way. A new poll shows 63 percent feel Sarkozy's private life is overexposed.
But that's not to say they care. Media reports have overblown the link between Sarkozy's dropping poll numbers and his relationship with Bruni, says pollster Gaël Sliman of the BVA firm. It's not for lack of trying--pollsters are working very hard on this question because that's what their media clients are demanding. "[But] it doesn't interest regular French people. It doesn't concern them. We ask the question 36 different ways, they say, 'I don't give a damn'," says Sliman. "Sure, if there's a TV show about it, it'll be 'bankable.' But that Sarkozy divorces, that he marries a supermodel, people don't give a damn, to an unimaginable degree."
In fact, Sarkozy's dip in the polls isn't new. From honeymoon figures after his election in May, Sarkozy's approval rating has been dropping since September as his heady economic promises haven't panned out. His flashy lifestyle aggravates at the margins, but only because the public isn't seeing the results he promised. What he does in his private life has surprisingly little impact on his approval rating. That he's taking recess without getting his homework done is what rankles. And even then the effect is very minor. "The speed [might throw people off], but Sarkozy is a president who moves quickly," says Régine Torrent, author of "First Ladies, d'Eleanor Roosevelt à Hillary Clinton." Of course, if it only lasts a year, she says, "Two divorces in one term would show a lack of judgment."
And Torrent says Bruni can't do worse than Sarkozy's original première dame, Cécilia, 50. His wife of 11 years lasted five months as First Lady. She's credited with playing some role in helping to free Bulgarian nurses imprisoned in Libya, but the moody Cécilia also made headlines for not bothering to vote on Election Day and bailing on key meetings, leaving the G8 summit early and playing hooky during a Bush family barbeque at the president's family estate in Kennebunkport, Maine. Touring Jordan and Egypt, "Carla Bruni didn't have a 'white angina' [the sore throat excuse Cécilia gave last summer for bailing on the Bushes]," quips Torrent. "She's smiley. She looks happy to be there. He looks happy to be there. Maybe they are made for this role."
Indeed, Sarkozy's speed in going public about the relationship may have its own political benefits. "He's a pro," says Sliman. "We speak only about what he wants us to speak about." He may have it down to a science. "With the reform of universities last summer, with the special regimes reform last fall, he pitches in a completely unrelated news item. Every time a subject might allow a structured opposition to mobilize, he can create a diversion," says Sliman. Indeed, Sarkozy's relationship with Bruni was made public two days after the controversial state visit of Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi drew a wave of negative publicity.
"All this stuff may not so be so idiotic on his part. No one wants to talk about the core issues. Not the media, not the opposition, not the unions. What's funny is that that's what interests regular people. It's a fabulous diversion," continues Sliman. "Maybe [flashing his private life] is one or two points lost in popularity polling, but for that everyone who could have a critical role isn't playing it." As such, the calculus may work out in his favor--and the magical world of Sarkozy isn't as frivolous as it might appear.