Sarkozy's liaison fixates France

The Baltimore Sun

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, but who later went on to marry 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 episodes ago.

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

Le Journal du Dimanche, owned by a wealthy friend of the president, ran a front-page article over the weekend saying that Sarkozy and Bruni would marry Feb. 8 or 9.

Yesterday, Sarkozy hinted that marriage might be imminent but stopped short of confirming a February ceremony.

"There is a strong chance that you will learn about it after it's already done," he said, with a grin.

Asked if they had already tied the knot, he raised his ring-less left hand, to a laughing audience including his full Cabinet and hundreds of reporters at the traditional New Year news conference at the Elysee Palace.

Sarkozy defended his decision to take the relationship public, saying he wanted to break with a long tradition of French leaders keeping their love lives hidden, with the media's tacit accord. He alluded to the late Francois Mitterrand, who kept the existence of a mistress and illegitimate daughter a secret for most of his 1981-1995 presidency.

The president's critics, many of whom don't like his center-right politics, are already fed up with his giddy new love and the way they say he's used 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, he's used his personal life to divert attention from more pressing issues of state.

He ended his 11-year marriage to Cecilia Sarkozy 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 ended up backing 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 percent.

Christine Clerc, a political analyst, said that while the French don't traditionally care about their presidents' personal lives -- their voracious womanizing and illegitimate children -- many people aren't comfortable with having so much high living thrown in their faces.

Bruni 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 its 17th-century castle in Turin 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 her to be on more than 250 magazine covers as well as to becoming the face of the Guess? jeans campaign. By the time she quit, she was earning a reported $7.5 million a year.

She also has made a 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 the public pressures.

"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."

Geraldine Baum writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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