10.19.11

A Sarkozy Is Born

Nicolas Sarkozy just became the first French president to become a father in office, with wife Carla giving birth to a girl Wednesday in Paris. But will the new "fille" boost his sagging approval rating?

C’est une fille! It’s a girl for French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. The little girl was born before 8 p.m. on Wednesday evening at a private clinic in Paris. The baby’s name is not yet known.

Nicolas Sarkozy becomes the first French president—and the first French head of state since the Emperor Napoleon III in 1856—to become a father in office. The president missed the delivery, tending instead to the euro debt crisis at an informal emergency meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, and Euro-heavyweights in Frankfurt. Sarkozy visited his wife in labor for 30 minutes before flying to Germany in the afternoon and returned to his wife’s bedside around 11 p.m. Whether the markets will appreciate the sacrificial gesture—videoconference from the delivery suite may have been tacky—is an open question. But if baby Sarkozy, by some genetic predisposition to politicking, has her little heart set on rescuing Daddy Dearest from cranky public opinion and chronically low poll numbers, she has her work cut out.

The baby girl is the couple’s first child. Each already has children from previous unions, but this is the first daughter for both. Sarkozy, 56, has three sons from two previous marriages. Pierre, 26, a music producer, and Jean, 25, a politician, are from Sarkozy’s first marriage. Louis, 14, is from his second wife (and former first lady) Cécilia Ciganer-Albeniz, whom he divorced in October 2007 (Sarkozy is the first French president to divorce in office). Sarkozy is also a grandfather to his son Jean’s 20-month-old, Solal. Bruni-Sarkozy, 43—whom Sarkozy married in February 2008 (making him the second French president to marry in office)—has one son, Aurélien, 10, from her union with the French philosopher Raphaël Enthoven.

After weeks of false alarms on Twitter, and more than one faux baby delivered by mischievous radio comedians, the wait is over. It will come as a relief, too, for the private Clinique de la Muette’s neighbors in Paris’s posh 16th Arrondissement. Photographers had been staking out the clinic under police surveillance since Sarkozy’s father, Pal, started the rumor of a delivery scheduled for Oct. 3. It was Pal Sarkozy who let slip that Carla was pregnant in an interview with the German daily Bild in May. (The slip reportedly made Sarkozy furious, and his PR experts were concerned it would look opportunistic, coming as it did three days after his then-presidential-election rival, International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was arrested in New York.) Bruni-Sarkozy’s appearance at the G-8 meeting France hosted in Deauville at the end of May was meant to be the first informal acknowledgment of her pregnancy, as the former supermodel emphasized the bump through her white dress, standing with other first ladies, by simply pointing to her belly with both hands.

Indeed, public relations around Bruni-Sarkozy’s pregnancy have been curious, a sort of ostentatious discretion. Sarkozy’s Elysée Palace never officially announced the pregnancy, leaving presidential sources to stress it was a private matter. Presidential sources, too, said the child’s birth would not be officially announced, telling press not to expect a press release announcing the birth. (Most French media on Wednesday night simply waited for an anonymous member of the new mother’s “entourage” to confirm the rumor to Agence France-Presse before chiming in with the news.) Bruni-Sarkozy has said that she would authorize no photo of the baby, effectively ruling out a British-style showing on the Elysée front steps. Two recent British prime ministers have become fathers in office, and both posed with their new bundles of joy on the threshold of 10 Downing Street. David Cameron’s daughter Florence Rose Endellion was born during a family holiday in Cornwall in August 2010, and Tony Blair’s son Leo was born in 2000.

Bruni-Sarkozy, indeed, gave several interviews in September, for television, radio, and print, but each stressed her “discretion.” She claimed she hadn’t spoken about the baby out of superstition and that the event was banal and wouldn’t interest the public facing tough times, and expressed regret about an incident in 2007, when her young son, Aurélien, was exposed to paparazzi on a holiday in Jordan at the very beginning of the future first lady’s relationship with Sarkozy. Indeed, if the Elysée’s new parents are going out of their way to be discreet—or to show insistently how discreet they are being—it is from experience with backfiring exposure. The Jordan holiday was the height of Sarkozy’s bling-bling period, for which he paid dearly in polls, when the freshly divorced head of state, six months into his term, was suddenly fraternizing with a former supermodel.

The French public has expressed dismay in the past when Sarkozy’s sons have appeared to benefit from his nepotism. In 2007, when Sarkozy was at once a presidential candidate and France’s interior minister, his son’s stolen scooter became the object of partisan sparring when it was disclosed the vehicle was found by police, using DNA. Opponents jeered that his son was being unduly favored, an accusation Sarkozy denied. In 2009, the president’s son Jean, then a 23-year-old second-year law student seen as grossly underqualified, had to drop his candidacy to become manager of France’s top business district, La Défense, west of Paris. Opponents said Sarkozy backing his son for the job made France look like a “banana republic.” A 2002 photo of Sarkozy’s young son Louis, then 5, playing under his father’s Interior Ministry desk in an obvious homage to a famous photo of John F. Kennedy Jr. in the Oval Office came to symbolize Sarkozy’s American-style tendency to show off his private life to advance his career, unusual in France before Sarkozy and unsavory to many.

If the Elysée’s new parents are going out of their way to be discreet—or to show insistently how discreet they are being—it is from experience with backfiring exposure.

The French public will look. But analysts seem unconvinced the new baby will make a discernible difference in Sarkozy’s dismal approval rating, with the unofficial pre-campaign now under way for the 2012 presidential election, a debt crisis making France’s standing with ratings agencies a top priority, and Sarkozy associates under suspicion in a series of damaging scandals. Sarkozy effectively won a war, leading the campaign for an operation to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, without a popularity bounce. Can a little girl at the palace really be enough to soften his edges in the public eye?