Sarkozy and the tender trap
Both his current and former wife are turning heads – and the French president is losing PR points both ways. Can Nicolas Sarkozy rescue his gravitas on a state visit to Britain, asks FIONA MacGREGOR
THEY'RE calling it a revenge wedding. Given she has declared her new husband to be "the great love of her life", the French tabloids' ruling might be seen as being a bit harsh, but when Ccilia Ciganer-Albniz, the former Mme Sarkozy, tied the knot with Richard Attias in New York this weekend, her timing really couldn't have been better if she'd wanted to seriously upset her former spouse.
And so, as the beleaguered French president arrives in the UK to meet the Prime Minister and the Queen, with his new wife Carla Bruni and entourage of glamorous female Cabinet members in tow, it seems he just can't escape the controversy surrounding his private life.
Long gone are the days when the people of France believed what their president did in the bedroom (whosesoever it happened to be) was his own business. And however much Nicolas Sarkozy may urge his national press to focus on his politics rather than his private life, the fascinationover "President Bling Bling's" love life just won't die down. Indeed, the battle for public sympathy between Mmes Sarkozy former and present looks set to continue for some time yet.
On one hand you have Ccilia, 50, immaculately turned out, and a woman not prepared to bow to convention. She wasn't exactly popular with the French people as their first lady. She left her first husband and father of two of her children, Jacques Martin, a television presenter, to marry Sarkozy in 1996 – bizarrely, it was Sarkozy who as mayor of Paris had officiated at her first wedding. She would later leave her second husband to live, for a while, with Attias, the Morocco-born events organiser who has just become her third husband.
And while she may have returned to Sarkozy – she was with him during his presidential campaign – her failure to turn out and vote for him, her refusal to live in the lyse Palace and reluctance to appear with him at many public engagements led to accusations she was letting the side down (not helped by the uproar after she was issued with a presidential credit card).
Despite having managed (somewhat out of the blue to many people) to negotiate the release of Bulgarian nurses held in Libya on accusations of inflicting Aids on child patients, when she walked out on Sarkozy for a second time to return to Attias last October, there were more than a few mutterings of "good riddance".
But nothing could have prepared the French people for l'horreur of her replacement.
Within weeks, Sarkozy was snapped at Disneyland Paris in the undoubtedly gorgeous, but barely respectable, company of Carla Bruni, Italian heiress, model, singer/songwriter and erstwhile copine of high-profile men including Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger and Donald Trump. Even the birth of her son, Aurelien, in 2001 to philosopher Raphael Enthoven was controversial: Bruni met the then-married Raphael while dating his father, Jean-Paul.
She may have been turning 40 when she met Sarkozy, but time had not diminished Bruni's feline charms. Nor, it seemed, had it altered her reluctance to settle down with one man. "I'm monogamous from time to time, but I prefer polygamy and polyandry," she told Time magazine at the end of last year.
However, that did not stop her accompanying the President to Egypt and Jordan during the Christmas holidays. Finally, at a press conference on 8 January this year, President Sarkozy confirmed their relationship and hinted at a possible wedding. A couple of weeks later she appeared on the cover of a Spanish magazine, her arms and legs strategically positioned, but wearing nothing but a pair of black, above the knee, high-heeled boots – hardly the kind of discretion the French are renowned for appreciating in their politicians' lovers.
Sarkozy married Bruni on 2 February at the lyse Palace in Paris, just over three months after he and Ccilia had divorced. Yet, despite the somewhat scandalous reputation of his new wife, really what the French have failed to forgive their president for is the fact he appears to be spending far more time thinking about his new wife than he has about running the country.
Dubbed the "Carla Effect", its impact on Sarkozy's standing in France has been dramatic. A recent poll revealed massive discontent among the French about the state of their country when it comes to matters such as economic growth and unemployment figures. More than three-quarters of those polled said they disliked Sarkozy's display of his personal life and his personal rating was down 15 percentage points from the previous month.
This judgement might be slightly unfair: Sarkozy has a raft of plans afoot to tackle some of these issues, including economic reforms, protectionist policies for French corporations, changes to the education system, affirmative action in the workplace and an end to the 35-hour working week. But when Carla is seen on the front of magazines – such as the current UK edition of GQ – beautiful but naked, it's hardly surprising if people are suggesting the president's mind may not be fully on his job. It was rumoured at the time, that one of the reasons he married her so quickly was to avoid diplomatic discomfiture if she accompanied him on state visits such as the one he makes to Britain today. Yet it is hard to imagine what the simply but sensibly attired (and highly astute PR expert) Sarah Brown will be thinking about her counterpart's recent modelling stint.
Meanwhile, as disapproval of Carla grows, Ccilia is enjoying something of a reversal of fortunes. A few weeks after she left Sarkozy, four books about her were released. In one she says that Nicolas was never fit to be president. The French have been increasingly considering the uncomfortable possibility that Sarkozy's portrayal of the "perfect family life" following Ccilia's return may have been little more than a PR stunt, with her a rather reluctant cog in the president's spin machine.
Few in France seem to believe the president's current marriage is a coming-together of soulmates – especially given recent reports (firmly denied and eventually partially retracted amid threats of litigation) that a week before he married Carla, Sarkozy supposedly texted Ccilia and said: "If you come back, I'll call it all off."
In his book Carla Bruni: La Dame de Coeur' ("Queen of Hearts"), a current French bestseller, Thierry Coljon quotes Bruni as declaring that being a "predator isn't so bad for a girl … It reverses the roles". But so far it remains unclear exactly who is the predator in her current relationship.
Indeed, some romantics are beginning to see Ccilia as something of a champion of true love, a woman who has finally found "the great love of her life" and chosen him above the trappings of politics and power.
Still, not everyone is convinced. Reporting on Ccilia's chic and discreet wedding ceremony on Sunday with 150 guests at the Rainbow Room of New York's Rockefeller Center (before the couple headed off to take in a performance of the Abba-themed musical Mamma Mia!, on Broadway) the left-wing press couldn't resist a dig: "Three marriages and a year of erring" was the headline in France's Libration newspaper. Inside, the opening paragraph of a two-page feature read: "Knowing perfectly well that this is information which interests no-one, let's remark that this weekend in New York, Ccilia Isabel Ciganer-Albniz married Richard Attias."
Despite such comments, Ccilia must be revelling in the fact she is enjoying more popularity than her successor, with French commentators refusing to take seriously claims from the lyse Palace PR machine that Carla's beauty and musical talent will make her an asset to the president's cause.
In France, the latest twist in the presidents highly messy and public love life, was met with customary Gallic distain. As Agns Poirier, journalist and author of Touch: A French Woman's Take on the English, puts it: "This will reverberate throughout France as the latest humiliation for the President, who was not only deserted by la femme de sa vie while in office, but who finally lost her to the same man twice."
So what should Sarkozy do now? Well, when things are going wrong there's one woman a man should always be able to turn to in times of need: La Maman. And it looks like he is doing just that: he is bringing the original Mme Sarkozy, his mother Andre, with him on this visit to Britain.
The formidable 81-year-old is regarded with a mix of awe and affection by many in France. However, whether even she will be able to fill in the likely silences if Carla opts to share with Prince Philip her unusual views on marriage remains to be seen.
DESPITE her public declaration against monogamy, the lithe beauty who is rumoured to have been involved with Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Donald Trump and former French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius still managed to bag Sarkozy, marrying him less than four months after his divorce, her first marriage and his third.
The 40-year-old heiress to the Italian tyre manufacturing company CEAT, Bruni is often referred to as one of the world's most beautiful women. She began modelling at 19, working for Christian Dior, Christian Lacroix, Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano, Yves Saint-Laurent, Chanel and Versace among others, and by the 1990s, she was among the 20 highest-paid fashion models in the world.
In interviews however, she has attempted to distance herself from the "dumb model" stereotype, saying: "Even when I was having my hair and make-up done backstage at a fashion show, I would sneak in a copy of Dostoevsky and read it inside a copy of Elle or Vogue." Her romantic life has rarely been out of the news, particularly seven years ago when, while living with French publisher Jean-Paul Enthoven, she fell in love with his married son Raphael who was ten years her junior. He divorced his wife to be with Bruni, with whom he had a son, Aurelien, in 2001. In 1997, Bruni left the fashion industry to pursue a musical career. Her first two albums have been successful in France, and her third album is planned for release in autumn 2008.
SARKOZY'S ex-wife, 50-year-old Ccilia Ciganer-Albniz, who divorced the French president just over five months ago, has, like her ex-husband, chosen not to remain single for long: she married "the great love of her life", events planner Richard Attias, in New York's Rockefeller Center on Sunday.
Like Sarkozy, this latest marriage is her third. She met her second husband at her first wedding – which was to French TV host Jacques Martin in 1984 – where Sarkozy, then the mayor of Neuilly, conducted the ceremony.
When they met again three years later Sarkozy said he felt "struck by lightning". The feeling was apparently mutual and she left Martin to live with Sarkozy in 1988. Despite the fact that Sarkozy was still married at the time, she is said to have insisted on being called Madame Sarkozy. When Sarkozy obtained a divorce in 1996, they married in Neuilly the same year, and six months later, had a child, Louis. He was to be the couple's only child, although both had two children from their previous marriages.
In 2005, Cecilia embarked on a year-long affair with Publicis executive Richard Attias, during which time her husband began seeing journalist Anne Fulda. However, in early 2006, she returned to her husband, who was in the throes of his presidential campaign. At the time an acquaintance was quoted as saying: "She went back to him because she didn't want his defeat blamed on her. She went right to the end. She doesn't love him, but she wanted to show him that she gave everything up for him." The couple divorced in October last year.
…AND THE MOST IMPORTANT WOMAN IN HIS LIFE
THERE may be younger contenders, but the most important woman in Sarkozy's life is surely his beloved mother, Andre, affectionately known as "Daudou".
The 82-year-old lawyer is the closest thing France has to the Queen Mother and has been described as "formidable" by the press.
With her helmet of silver hair, twinsets, pearls and the odd Herms scarf, she's an intimidating mother-in-law, as Ccilia Ciganer-Albniz can undoubtedly attest – Andre described Ccilia as "cold" in an interview after she divorced Nicolas.
Sarkozy's mother has not yet made her feelings known on her new daughter-in-law, but since before the pair married she said: "I hope that no-one will get married again. I've had enough of brides", it might be safe to assume that she doesn't entirely approve.
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