Call it another first-lady smackdown in France. First Valérie Trierweiler, Socialist President François Hollande’s partner, spent months fielding blistering criticism over one impulsive tweet. This week French social media have turned their wrath on ex–première dame Carla Bruni-Sarkozy for appearing to dismiss feminism in a French fashion magazine. The supermodel turned pop star’s faux pas won’t soon be forgotten, if Trierweiler’s experience is any indication. But in the end Bruni-Sarkozy just may have taken one for the team.
Six months after Nicolas Sarkozy lost his bid for a second term, Bruni-Sarkozy has looked keen to return to the spotlight she shunned during his presidency. The Italian-born former catwalker can be seen on billboard ads in Paris hawking Philippe Starck–designed headphones for the Parrot brand. Her fourth album, and first since 2008, is due out in the spring. And she is set to grace the cover of Vogue Paris next week, as the “guest of honor” of the fashion monthly’s Christmas issue.
But the attention the former first lady drew this week probably wasn’t what she was aiming for. In comments released to preview that French Vogue interview, Bruni-Sarkozy, 44, declared: “We don’t need to be feminists in my generation. There are pioneers who paved the way. I am not at all a feminist activist.” The remarks sparked a quick storm of invective online.
The French women’s-rights group Osez le Féminisme! (roughly translated as Dare to Be Feminist!) issued a clarion call on Twitter. “Explain to Carla Bruni why your generation needs feminism,” the group tweeted, suggesting that responders use the hashtag “#ChèreCarlaBruni” (Dear Carla Bruni). One of the group’s activists, Claire Serre-Combe, tweeted: “#ChèreCarlaBruni 75,000 adult women raped in France/year are enough to convince me my generation needs feminism.” Another, Linda Ramoul, tweeted: “#ChèreCarlaBruni, My generation needs feminism because I am on sale for 27% off every day of the year,” referring to France’s notorious female-male wage gap.
On Wednesday and Thursday, nearly 2,000 took to Twitter to use the hashtag, many angrily taking the former first lady to task. Domestic violence, rape conviction rates, pensions, job security, and household chores were among the topics. Some suggested that as long as boys can’t play with dolls or aspire to be midwives without eliciting snide remarks, feminism is necessary. @ShriBenjamin posted: “#ChèreCarlaBruni, my generation needs feminism. But it doesn’t need a ‘first lady.’” Some were snarkier, like @oceanerosemarie’s widely retweeted, “#ChèreCarlaBruni, if your generation didn’t need feminists your face wouldn’t be a silicone prosthesis.” Bruni’s métier was derided in a tweet from @OvidieOfficiel referencing the flawless new Vogue cover shot: “#ChèreCarlaBruni we will no longer need feminism when they no longer need to retouch the cover of Vogue to make 45 look like 20.”
Politicians joined in, too. Former cabinet minister Corinne Lepage tutted, “#ChèreCarlaBruni as long as there are no women at the European Central Bank we will need feminism.” One female Socialist senator, Laurence Rossignol, 54, tweeted, “#ChèreCarlaBruni As long as I get asked whether I am the senator’s assistant, the next generation will need feminism.” And the government’s spokeswoman and minister for women’s rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, retorted in an Elysée Palace press conference: “We need everyone to be feminist. Feminism is the fight for equality between the sexes, not the domination of one sex over another.”
Not all the feedback was critical, however. Some agreed with Bruni-Sarkozy. “I have nothing against feminists even though they discredited the image of women, thank you to #ChèreCarlaBruni for allowing me to say so,” tweeted @NGTprofiler. Others suggested the critics were just jealous. “Carla Bruni is drawing fire from feminists! Well, of course, SHE is beautiful, intelligent, and happy at home,” tweeted @Tweets_of_bea.
“That phrasing was very clumsy and poorly expresses my thoughts,” she explained. “It should have read: ‘I have never personally felt the need to be a feminist activist.’”
Two Osez le Féminisme! activists broke from the 140-character salvos with an op-ed Wednesday in the left-leaning daily Libération. The fight for equality, Serre-Combe and Magali De Haas wrote, “must mean something to you, you who unjustly had to put your career on hold during your time at the Elysée, a ‘first lady,’ if anyone, being never better than second in the couple she forms with her president husband.” The activists sniped, “Not all women have the means to book a private floor in a private clinic in the 16th arrondissement to give birth,” referring to the posh Paris district where Bruni-Sarkozy delivered her daughter, Giulia, last year. The women highlighted the issue with statistics: 122 women in France were killed by their partners or exes last year, they wrote, and one woman is raped every eight minutes in the country.
On Wednesday night, Bruni-Sarkozy, speaking to Elle France, backpedaled on the remarks—even before they hit newsstands in Vogue Paris on Monday. “That phrasing was very clumsy and poorly expresses my thoughts,” she explained. “It should have read: ‘I have never personally felt the need to be a feminist activist.’” Toying with the concept, Bruni-Sarkozy continued, “I imagine that I am [feminist] if feminism is staking a claim to liberty. But I am not if it means engaging in an active way in the battle some are still leading today.” Bruni-Sarkozy, who has been active in promoting AIDS awareness and other causes, said she had on “many occasions” supported women’s rights and pledged to “continue to do so every time it seems to me useful and justified.”
Ironically, the dustup over Bruni-Sarkozy’s comments has overshadowed the progressive stand she takes in the same Vogue Paris interview in favor of gay marriage, an issue Sarkozy’s party has railed against.
And it wasn’t the first time since Sarkozy left office that the former first lady’s remarks have fired controversy. Just last month, she suggested in Elle France that her embattled successor, Trierweiler, might get into less trouble if she and Hollande just got married.
But some wondered this week whether Bruni-Sarkozy might indeed have helped the cause she appeared to dismiss, simply by spurring discussion on what feminism is. As it happens, France’s Socialist government on Friday had been due to roll out broad new measures to promote gender equality, addressing victims of domestic violence, workplace inequality, and stereotypes in schools, sports, and the media. In the event, the new plan was touted as “a third generation of women’s rights”—so-called real equality after postwar civil rights and the social and economic rights won in the 1970s and ’80s. One French daily even wondered if the wording was a shout-out to the former first lady. Bruni-Sarkozy’s remarks, and the fire they drew, in fact make a handy, informative segue, even a roundabout sort of publicity. Perhaps her modeling comeback isn’t going all that badly after all.