W hen Carla Bruni ceased to be first lady of France last year, many thought that was the last the Elysée Palace would see of the former supermodel and her President Bling husband. It was said that with Nicolas Sarkozy no longer in power, Bruni was bound to leave him. Monogamy, she once famously observed, "bores" her. And, of course, Sarkozy would be bored to tears by a wife who knew nothing about politics. They had both, it was whispered, already taken lovers since their improbable whirlwind wedding four years earlier. Besides, even if they did stay together, Sarkozy's political career was over. Following defeat last May by his socialist rival François Hollande, he himself had declared, "C'est fini."
Fifteen months on, with Hollande the most unpopular president in French history, Sarkozy has already said he may be "forced to return", to save the nation from economic ruin. The couple continue to live in Bruni's house in Paris's 16th arrondissement, with her 11-year-old son Aurélien and their 18-month-old baby Giulia, while Sarkozy practises law and makes speeches and she resumes her music career. Her latest album, Little French Songs, was released in April and reached number two in France, possibly assisted by speculation that one of the tracks is a veiled attack on Sarkozy's successor, and she has been on an energetic publicity blitz ever since. But Bruni seems to be promoting her marriage as much as the album, and unless she is a much more accomplished actor than an earlier movie appearance would suggest, she is quite comically besotted with her husband.
He calls her within minutes of her arrival at a Paris hotel. Everyone recognises her at once – even though she is in jeans and a low-brimmed hat, without a trace of makeup – and the thought occurs that had Kate Moss married the prime minister, or Cherie Blair released an album, they would be unlikely to give an interview in the bar of a busy hotel, unchaperoned by publicists or minders. But Bruni is almost implausibly relaxed, joking around as if we were old catwalk friends as she pulls out an electronic cigarette ("I don't like to smoke cigarettes in the daytime").
Everything about her manner is unguarded and complicit. She is generous with sweet if wildly far-fetched compliments, and her sentences are often completed with a gesture or expression, so that it feels as if her whole body is making conversation. Despite laughing all the time, and contradicting herself quite often, she still conveys an impression of discerning substance – which must owe something to her background, scion of a vastly wealthy and cultured Italian family, and something to the psychoanalysis she has been in for years – though when her phone rings and the name “Amour Nicolas” appears, she dissolves into kittenish delight. “A tout à l’heure, à tout à l’heure,” she purrs down the line, a finger to her lips. See you soon, see you soon . . .
Hanging up, she spots a nearby couple drinking champagne and exclaims, “Shall we? Oh, no no no!” She orders us Coca-Colas, but keeps eyeing their table. “Champagne – lucky them, look at them. Oh, and rosé champagne – mmm, I love it.”
Let’s order some, then? “No no no, we shouldn’t, no! No, I can’t drink so early! I’m only allowed to have a drink when I’ve finished work at the end of the day, and not more than half a beer.” That’s not very rock’n’roll, I say. “Well, my man doesn’t drink, so I’m not going to open a bottle of wine.” Sarkozy, she explains, has never even tasted alcohol. “He doesn’t like the smell, and he never tasted the great pleasure of being slightly drunk, you know?” She laughs. “So he just finds it smells bad, and makes people behave funny, so he doesn’t like it. And now that he’s 58, he says he’s not going to start drinking now. That’s just ridiculous, he says.” Wasn’t she tempted to try to persuade him? “No, because, first of all, he’s not a man who does things in a half way, so I’m afraid if he likes it, he’s just going to want to . . . you know. And anyway, he doesn’t want to start.”
When the couple met at a dinner party in 2007, Bruni didn’t even notice he was teetotal. “He doesn’t really need it – he is full of fun.” She had recently split from the father of her son, Raphaël Enthoven – a philosopher whose father she had previously dated – and Sarkozy’s second marriage had just ended. That evening she read him some lyrics she had written. “I wanted to show him I was a poet, eh?” she laughs self-mockingly. “Poet he never had, hah hah. Third marriage, but with a poet, no? I’m not Yeats, but I still try, you know, I try to write my poetry.” She gave him the lyric sheet, “And he kept it, you know? Kept it. He still has it.” It was, she has always said, love at first sight.
It was also a political sensation. Sarkozy was a right-wing politician, whereas Bruni had dropped out of the Sorbonne at 19 to become a supermodel, and soon the mistress of Mick Jagger, before moving on to Eric Clapton. The political classes of Paris were agog at this profoundly unlikely presidential consort – glamorously bohemian, essentially apolitical – but she thinks her celebrity was helpful for her new role.
“I’d been famous since I was 19, and so you get used to it, you know? You have, like, this other person who has your name, who does all these strange things you don’t do, and says all these strange things you never said,” she giggles. “So I was actually happy, because that famous thing really helped me through the time that my husband was the president.”
The couple wed in February 2008, just before Sarkozy's first state visit to Britain. "When I came to England as the wife of the French president, I had a fantastic time – because English people, they like when you respect their protocols. They thought I was going to come and be provocative, right, because of my past. But I studied what to do in front of the queen, and I tried to do it very well."
She can still quote the fawning headlines from Fleet Street’s coverage – and says she didn’t even mind that a tabloid published an old nude photograph of her on the day they arrived. “Well, I was kind of happy, because I was 24 in the picture,” she grins. “Always pleasant – being 39 when it happened. I thought, okay, this is a bit embarrassing – but I am 24, and slim,” she laughs. The photo had been shot for an Aids campaign, and featured several other supermodels – “But they didn’t marry the president, obviously,” she giggles.
In addition to Bruni’s son, there were already three sons from Sarkozy’s earlier marriages, but the couple longed for another baby. “I tried and tried and tried, and as usual how it happens, you stop trying eventually and then boom. I thought I had a disease or something, a bad disease, because you know how the beginnings [of pregnancy] are funny: you smell people, and I got this craving for sugar, you know? And I kept falling asleep. I would go up the stairs in my house and be really out of breath” – she feigns panting – “so I went to the doctor and they did blood tests and radiography, which is completely forbidden when you are pregnant. These treatments, they are so toxic for the baby, but I didn’t know I was pregnant.”
A week later, the possibility dawned. “I did a test at home. I couldn’t believe it!” She mimes open-mouthed shock, pretending to gaze at a pregnancy test stick. “I was, like . . . ” and she hyperventilates. “So I did it again. I bought three tests! I thought maybe they did a mistake.” When the pregnancy was confirmed, did any part of her panic? “Nah, I was 43. I was like, oh my God, there is a God! He exists! I should have prayed!”
The pregnancy wasn’t easy, nor were the early months. “When she was born and I used to nurse her, we used to call her Pol Pot, because she would eat every hour. Every two hours at night,” and she feigns exhausted despair. “After five months I had to stop. I was just, I can’t, I can’t do it.”
Becoming a politician’s wife taught her one thing, she says. “That there is no way to be funny any more. Fun doesn’t really work with this kind of position, so I couldn’t play around – and me, I like a lot to play around for fun, you know? I don’t take it very seriously. I mean, I take life very seriously, but not myself or the situation.”
Even so, some comments have landed Bruni in hot water. She jokes with me that women could do with wives to take care of them – "Yes, we need wives! You know, we should live together. Then the men can come and have fun and make love, you know?" – but had to apologise last year for telling Vogue that "We don't need to be feminist in my generation."
“I said I’m not a feminist, meaning I’m not a militant,” she protests. “Because I’m not! I’m not very militant about anything. Either you’re militant or you’re not. I just said I admire the feminists, but I’m not myself a feminist because many women who came before me gave us rights. I’m allowed not to be, right? I never was politically militant, never socially militant, you know. I’m a bubble person,” and she starts to laugh again. “At home with my guitar, reading a poem. I’m not militant. I know I should be, but I’m not. I’m not someone who would go and fight for something.”
She maintains the same innocent bewilderment when I bring up the song on her album called Le Pingouin. She reportedly told friends it was about Hollande, and the lyrical allusions seem unambiguous: the right-wing critics' nickname for him, Mr Neither-Yes-Nor-No, appears to be echoed by the line, "Neither ugly nor beautiful, neither tall nor short, neither hot nor cold, the penguin, neither yes or no", while another appears to mock his official portrait, taken in the Elysée Palace gardens: "You look all alone in your garden." So is the song about her husband's successor?
“It’s not, no no no, not even a little bit,” she protests. “Because I never really write like that. It’s hard to explain, but when I write, I don’t have such a precise idea in my head. I don’t say, OK, I’m going to write a song about X.”
The track Mon Raymond is, however, unequivocally dedicated to her husband, and casts him as a pirate and an atomic bomb. "I think he likes it," she grins. "But they're not used to being muses, men. They're used to being the artist. The minute you put them in the muse position, they go: What? Especially Latins." She laughs.
She jumps to her husband's defence when I bring up one of many legal cases he is currently fighting. Sarkozy has been accused of "abusing the frailty" of his country's richest woman, the L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, by demanding and receiving campaign donations from the then 84-year-old. The charge of "elder abuse" is, Bruni urges indignantly, ludicrous. "I mean, my man, you should see. He has something with women – very old-fashioned, right? So he would never come here and let us pay for our Coca-Cola. If you walk into a room, he would never stay seated."
Does she like that? “I like it very much. It reminds me of my dad. A little Freud,” she adds as an aside, smiling.
“I like men to be gallant. “He’s always taking care of my mother, my aunt, so he would just never do anything to a woman. It’s just unimaginable. You can’t think about it when you know him! You can say, ‘Oh, I don’t like Sarkozy, I don’t like his policies.’ Or even ‘I don’t like the way he talks.’ Or whatever, you know? Taste is taste. But you can never say Sarkozy does something to a woman, never! Never never. It’s impossible when you know him.”
While Sarkozy was president, Bruni continued to write songs, but very rarely performed. Commentators were dumbfounded by her apparent transformation from permissive free spirit to doting bourgeois housewife, with critics divided between suspicion and disappointment.
Early on, she tells me, “I would stay home and be a mum at home. I would love that.” But later she volunteers, “I love family life, but I get slightly depressed when I stay only with the children. I mean, don’t you? Like, just a little bit depressed. I know it’s not politically correct to say that, but it’s true – that’s how I feel. After three weeks doing only children and my man and the house, children, the house and my man, children, the house and my man. And I think women that do that are very useful.”
She throws herself back in the chair. “I think they should be paid! It’s such a hard job – and on top of that they are not admired. You go to a dinner party and someone says, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Oh, I take care of my three children’ – and they turn away.”
She says she used to suffer crippling stage fright – and still does. “It’s a little better now. The problem is that it doesn’t really show, so people don’t believe it. But it’s physical – I get a little ill. But then you’re stuck – people are sitting there, they’ve bought a ticket, so what are you going to do? Escape? You always hope something happens – the ceiling falls in, the floor explodes, someone is sick in the audience, and the show is cancelled. Or maybe I die from fear, and they just go on stage and say, ‘Carla Bruni is dead.’ But then you don’t die. So you’ve got to go on.”
So why do it? “You know, everything in life feels like that to me. I am very fearful by nature. I’m just an anxious type. So I am full of fear.” Of what? Criticism? Failure? Death? “I’m afraid of death, yes,” she agrees quickly, with feeling. “You know, age, death, death of other people, disease. Urgh.” She shudders. “So I try to fill up life, you know. I think I try to put as many things between me and death as I can. A lot of life, change life, change country, change language, who cares?”
There have been so many rumours about cosmetic surgery that I ask if she has also changed her body. I’ve certainly never seen a 45-year-old without a single line around the eyes before; but then again, I’ve never met a woman who’s had facial work but wears no makeup. “No,” she says firmly. “I would do surgery if I was sure it would work, but I’m not sure it does. They look strange, the women – they don’t look younger, so I’m just not sure it works. I wouldn’t have any moral judgment about it – but if it goes wrong, it’s forever!”
And how would she feel about becoming first lady again? She sinks back in her chair, her expression fixed in an almost theatrical despond. “It was really, like, a great honour, but it doesn’t really depend on me, and it’s not something I think about. And an election campaign, it’s a little bit like a war – a small war– so the thought of going through that again . . . ” She shudders. “I’m not a warrior, I’m not a fighter, I’m not a boxer. He is.”
Does she think France needs another Sarkozy presidency? She offers an airy, rueful shrug. "I'm not qualified to judge that. Of course I think he's the best. But then, I'm in love with him."
– Guardian Service