Carla Bruni-Sarkozy Caught in Politics of Labor Statue

The French first lady’s latest gig has her cast against type. By Clara Zabludowsky.

Ian Gavan / Getty Images

The plans to build a statue honoring Italian workers has created an uproar in the town of Nogent-sur-Marne, a suburb of Paris. The sculpture, proposed by Mayor Jacques J.P. Martin, is to be modeled after Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the supermodel millionaire wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The six-and-a-half-foot bronze sculpture was approved in 2011 by the town council of Nogent-sur-Marne. The statue, by Elisabeth Cibot, is set to commemorate the plumassières–women of Italian descent who have worked with ornamental feathers for the fashion industry since the 19th century.

Now it seems as though the plumassières are going to have yet another connection to the world of fashion: on Sunday, the French daily newspaper Le Parisien broke the story that the first lady had served as the model for the sculpture and political feathers have been ruffled.

Cibot, the sculptor who has previously created lifelike representations of important male figures from former French president François Mitterrand to the late Pope John Paul II, had a photography session with Bruni-Sarkozy to take some shots so the erstwhile supermodel could serve as a model for the sculpture (or at least the face).

For many, the idea of honoring laborers through a woman who is most often associated with launching campaigns for the luxury brands of Versace, Chanel, and Yves Saint-Laurent is absurd. "It is an insult to poor Italian feather-pluckers to give them the face of this super-rich woman,” said Socialist party council member William Geib. But, then, what does he know about fashionable feathers?

The mayor, a member of President Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement right-of-center party, has defended his choice, telling the news service AFP that using the first lady makes sense because the monument honors Italian-French laborers and Bruni-Sarkozy "is the most Italian of French women.”

Alas, the reminder of the first lady’s dual nationality has not made anyone feel better. Members of the mayor’s own party (and the party of Bruni-Sarkozy’s husband) have denounced Sunday’s revelation, accusing Martin of political maneuvers ahead of the presidential election this spring. Council members who voted in favor of erecting the statue claim the mayor never told them of Bruni-Sarkozy’s involvement in the project.

Originally it was said that funding for the $108,000 sculpture would come half from local council funds and the other half from Cogedim, a French property-development company. The mayor has since issued a denial, saying Cogedim will cover all of the costs of the sculpture. In an attempt to calm the political firestorm that has erupted, Mayor Martin has also told Le Parisien that the statue’s unveiling will take place after the presidential election so he cannot be accused of ulterior motives.

For her part, Bruni-Sarkozy has tried to distance herself from the controversy. Speaking to Le Parisien, her spokeswoman said, [modeling] "is her former profession … she is often asked and she often says yes, and always on a voluntary basis. She never agreed to have her name attached to the project. It is a pity if someone is trying to score free publicity off of her back.”

Regardless of the initial intention, the celebrity is out of the bag and a particular niche of the labor movement may have found its new face in a very unlikely model.