When supermodel-turned-pop star Carla Bruni told a journalist in 2007 that she was “crazily bored by monogamy,” she came across, yet again, as some sort of sexual revolutionary straight from the pages of the Marquis de Sade’s erotic writing. Since becoming France’s first lady, however, she has softened her provocative side.
So it is that with the French capital awash in over-the-top rumors about an “open” presidential marriage, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy asserted in an interview released on March 10 that President Nicolas Sarkozy would “never” cheat on her. Filmed by Britain’s Sky News television on March 5, a journalist asked Bruni if, given Sarkozy’s past infidelities, she could trust him. “Oh yes, very much,” she said. “He would never have affairs. And have you ever seen a picture of him having an affair?”
“I guess marriage should be forever, but, um, who knows what happens,” says Bruni. “I wish it was forever, that’s my hope, but we could be dead tomorrow.”
The interviewer, apparently, hadn’t seen John Edwards-level proof.
“Ah, so,” said Bruni icily.
But the first lady’s denial is unlikely to put the issue to rest. The corridors of French politics are always ripe with rumors, like the royal gossip of centuries past—absurd, sexy, and absurdly sexy tales. It is hard to think of another country where sex and power are so intimately and, in many ways, so comfortably intertwined.
Bruni was never married prior to becoming first lady, but she reportedly broke Eric Clapton’s heart when she jumped to Mick Jagger, and she is known as such a huntress of men that she found herself having to deny that she first dated the father of the handsome young philosopher whom she later had a child with. When Sky News asked her about her legendary monogamy quote, she tried to dial it back in her blurry way, like a good first lady, saying: “Well I was never married, so I think monogamy has to do with marriage, right?”
The next day, a rumor about Bruni-Sarkozy began to spread like wildfire, especially in the Bruni-obsessed British press. It asserted that she has shacked up with singer-songwriter Benjamin Biolay. Never mind that Bruni, who is extremely wealthy, generally lives in her vast bohemian apartment in Paris with the French president or that Bruni has known and collaborated musically with Biolay for years, as on her 2008 album, which includes the song “ l’Amoureuse." People who work with Biolay, who recently earned the best male vocal and album of the year trophies at the annual French music awards, have suggested that a lawsuit might be in order to establish the truth.
Ironically, his recent awards victories may have inspired the tryst rumors. A small cluster of professional French journalists tweet each other the latest jokes, including absurd rumors, with a knowing wink. One tweeter seems to have jokingly suggested to friends that Biolay won his awards because of “favoritism,” given his good friends in high places. Those not in on the joke appear to have understood something else altogether. Soon the Internet was alive with rumors that the collaborators were living together, and le tout Paris was noting that Biolay and the first lady had been seen in public together on numerous occasions.
And then there is the other rumor, tweeted soon after, also, perhaps, with a wink. It linked Sarkozy to a protégé whom he has worked closely with for years, the 40-year-old junior minister for ecology, Chantal Jouanno, who is a 12-time karate champion. Jouanno’s people have called the rumor baseless.
The rumors, of course, have brought nothing but denials, although the Élysée Palace doesn’t officially comment on gossip. That said, Sarkozy appears to have a long history of infidelity. One of the most notorious alleged incidents was detailed in a fascinating 2008 Vanity Fair cover story on the Sarkozys’ intersection of glam, power, and sexual predation. The magazine recounted a scene wherein Nicolas Sarkozy and his first wife (and the mother of two of his children) went on a ski trip with the wife of popular French television host Jacques Martin, Cecilia. (Sarkozy, then mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, had performed their wedding.) When Sarkozy’s first wife couldn’t find him anywhere in the chalet, she decided to knock on Cecilia’s door. After some rustling and a long delay, an awkward Cecilia finally appeared. There was no one inside, but Sarkozy’s first wife noticed an open window and fresh footprints in the snow leading away.
Cecilia became Sarkozy’s second wife. But Sarkozy’s alleged philandering appears to have played a role in her decision to leave him for another man, as Sarkozy prepared his presidential run in 2007. Cecilia’s fling was detailed in a cover story in the popular magazine Paris Match; the article is widely blamed for getting the magazine’s editor in chief fired by the owner, who is close to Sarkozy. Cecilia eventually returned to France to play the good wife role during the final months of the campaign and into the first part of the presidency (although she neglected to vote in one electoral round). They divorced after Sarkozy became president, and she now lives in New York, where she has married her lover.
French presidents, of course, have a long tradition of infidelity. Former President Jacques Chirac’s wife, Bernadette, has talked of women throwing themselves at him, and his predecessor, François Mitterrand, turned out to have a second family that included an illegitimate daughter, who drew great attention when she appeared at his funeral.
Perhaps the real question is how true to the traditional marriage model the Bruni-Sarkozy union could possibly be. From the start, their lightning-speed courtship seemed to have been designed for some intersection of family show politics and glamorous reality television. It began with their “coming out” to the public at Euro Disneyland—a strange place to take such a rock ‘n’ roll date as Bruni. Their marriage, meanwhile, came just a few months after they supposedly met and just four months after Sarkozy’s divorce from Cecilia. Part of the calculation was that Sarkozy couldn’t take a mere girlfriend to meet foreign leaders. Besides, Bruni-Sarkozy has largely played the perfect elegant first lady, a modern Jackie Kennedy.
Cynics could be forgiven for wondering if the relationship was real, or whether it was a way to offer up Sarkozy 2.0; classier, more desirable, and more presidential. Gushing over her good fortune to find love and marriage at 40, Bruni told Sky News that it is a “real fairytale.”
But asked whether her marriage would endure, Bruni paused and offered a peculiar response: “I guess marriage should be forever, but, um, who knows what happens. I wish it was forever, that’s my hope, but we could be dead tomorrow.”
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel Shake Girl, which was inspired by one of his articles. He is based in Paris. Follow him at twitter.com/ericpape