Michelle Obama may not think that her days at the White House are “hell.” But, for allegedly suggesting Obama had told her as much, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy was on the hot seat after the September release of two new unauthorized biographies of the French first lady. The books, which catalog Bruni-Sarkozy’s indiscretions, grabbed headlines around the world and indicate how enduring—though ambivalent—our fascination is with France’s mercurial pop star turned première dame.
If, after almost three years on Nicolas Sarkozy’s arm and a quarter century in the public eye, Carla remains intriguing, it is because she has found a role—the wife of a head of state—in which women aren’t supposed to be too interesting. It is an awkward fit. Both bios discuss the challenge of repackaging Carla—a woman who posed nude professionally, a foreigner, an aristocrat, a self-styled libertine, who kept close company with the leftist elite—into something more palatable to her husband’s conservative base. (After all, only weeks before her whirlwind romance with the president began in 2007, Bruni sang at a rally protesting a proposition by Sarkozy’s political party to test aspiring immigrants’ DNA.) Carla the ex-supermodel became Carla the discreet, a stand-by-your-man archetype, absurdly timid (for a former catwalker) before the flashing cameras. The Élysée Palace would have the public believe that Bruni-Sarkozy has had a calming effect on her high-strung husband—along the lines of the traditional role for first ladies, a nurturing and soothing presence—but that’s harder to buy when the president is catching global flak for his impulsive populism and tactless diplomatic sparring with European allies.
Carla and the Ambitious Ones, by French journalists Michaël Darmon and Yves Derai, features that Michelle Obama remark. (The full scene: after Bruni-Sarkozy asks Obama about her day-to-day life, Obama supposedly replies, “Don’t ask. It’s hell. I can’t stand it.” Bruni-Sarkozy then responds, “And you’ve been in politics a long time. I’m just beginning.”) Bruni-Sarkozy swiftly denied it, telling CNN, “Of course Michelle Obama never said such a thing,” and insisting she hadn’t cooperated with the bio’s authors. Ironically, that troublesome bio is by far the tamer of the two new books. It tends to dote on Carla, while gossiping at length about a scheming cast of bit-parters who are mostly unknowns beyond the Paris beltway. Indeed, Bruni-Sarkozy’s categorical dismissal must have hurt for Darmon and Derai, who gush about how “she possesses a talent that is rare for a very beautiful woman: the ability to make people laugh.”
Besma Lahouri’s Carla: A Secret Life is more satisfying because it lets Bruni-Sarkozy be smart and interesting in her own right. It details her wealthy yet isolating Italian childhood as the secret product of her free-spirited concert-pianist mother’s illicit affair with a 19-year-old musician half her age. It also explores Carla’s knack for finding her way into the insular and disparate worlds of fashion, rock and roll (and Mick Jagger’s little black book), the left-wing Paris intelligentsia, and a right-wing Élysée Palace. “Carla is a seductress like a cat, clever as a monkey, and cold as a serpent,” French fashion guru Jean-Jacques Picart told Lahouri. Carla: A Secret Life is cynical, pondering why a specimen so wild would agree to be tamed so suddenly, wedged into a pillbox hat to curtsy for Queen Elizabeth, and wondering how long it can last.
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Yet if Carla Bruni-Sarkozy has retained enough mystery to become a virtual literary subgenre—the books are the eighth and ninth on her life in the scant 32 months since her marriage to the president—it’s her husband’s alleged Achilles’ heel that feeds the market. The conventional wisdom in France, rehashed regularly in books like these, is that Sarkozy is prohibitively dependent on the women in his life: his mother, his wives, even his cabinet ministers. He’s portrayed as giddy to showcase his private life like no other French politician before him, powerless under a lover’s influence, and despondent when she leaves, as he reportedly was when his second wife, Cécilia, divorced him shortly after he took office. And so Sarkozy’s amours become affairs of state in a country that normally doesn’t give a hoot about its leaders’ sex lives. The sudden appearance of a famous femme fatale in the palace, and one with a history of leftist tastes, is enough to assign intrigue and murky motives.
Lahouri claims the left is disappointed that Carla hasn’t had more sway, while the right wing is horrified by her supposed nefarious influence on the president. Both books hang some of Sarkozy’s worst political blunders on her—for allegedly handpicking the gaffe-prone culture minister, for example. It’s a bit farfetched, but it will keep publishers happy: the tableau it paints is entertaining as hell.