I’m sorry to return to the subject of the romance between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and super-groupie Carla Bruni so soon after my last column on the subject. But that piece—about whether Sarkozy’s desire to have a supermodel on his arm had its roots in his lack of height—was dedicated to the assumptions that Bruni would accompany Sarko when he came to India for Republic Day and that the President wanted to be perceived as France’s most virile midget.
Two things have happened since that column appeared. One: The couple have got married. Two: I was introduced to Sarko at an official function and while he’s certainly no giant, he’s not quite the dwarf-in-search-of-Snow White that the reports in the European press had suggested. I concede that he’s quite short by Western standards but in an Indian setting, he did not come across as particularly diminutive. When he stood next to Manmohan Singh, you were aware that he was shorter than our Prime Minister but when they hugged, you did not worry that the little fellow would headbutt Manmohan in the chest by mistake. Sarko’s around as tall as (or may be just a little shorter than) Dustin Hoffman or Tom Cruise; he’s certainly not Danny DeVito.
Keeping it official: Last month, Sarkozy visited the monument of love alone.
But my concern this week goes beyond Sarko’s elevator shoes. It’s the second of my early assumptions and its failure to find fulfilment that intrigues me: Why didn’t Bruni turn up in Delhi? The French had even planned a visit to the Taj Mahal so that Sarko and Carla could sit on that famous Diana bench and pose for the paparazzi—the perfect pre-wedding photo. But then, at the last moment: no Carla.
According to French commentators this is because of the bad press that Sarko and Bruni have been receiving. Sarko planned the liaison as a way of recovering his image after his wife left him for another man. In most countries, this would have worked: It’s hard to feel sorry for a fellow who has been dumped if he now has a supermodel/singer on his arm. In America, celebrity girlfriends are a quick route to public popularity. In the 1970s, when California’s voters wondered if Jerry Brown, their slightly kooky governor, was gay, he began stepping out with singer Linda Ronstadt and the speculation ended. Instead, stories about Brown’s love for the ladies made the rounds.
But it’s all gone badly wrong for poor Sarko. A trip to Egypt with Bruni which should have been a triumph ended up as a PR disaster as the French middle class complained about the American-style spectacle of staged photo-ops and the celebrity girlfriend. Since then, the bad press has kept coming. There is widespread revulsion over Sarko’s tendency to flaunt Bruni in public. He has been accused of pushing her down the throat of France and his own supporters have said that they regard the way in which he has conducted the relationship as “vulgar”.
It’s a peculiarly French response. In most countries, there would be trouble if the president had a clandestine relationship with a woman who has often been photographed in the nude. In France, on the other hand, the problem is that the relationship is not clandestine enough. Nobody gives a damn who Sarko romances—or eventually marries. They just mind that he does it so publicly.
The French have nothing against presidential girlfriends. It was widely known that Sarko’s immediate predecessor, Jacques Chirac, kept a string of mistresses. Residents of the street where one of them lived were used to the police arriving and blocking traffic to ensure that no assassin nailed the president while he was...well, you get the general idea.
Chirac’s predecessor François Mitterand actually had a second family whom he regularly visited—but no paper wrote about it till his illegitimate daughter appeared at his funeral and the press had to explain who she was. Mitterand’s predecessor Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was a seedy Lothario whose sexual escapades were well known but never reported, let alone judged.
The French have always taken the line that their politicians’ private lives must remain private and that nobody has a right to intrude—not the public and not the press. Now they’ve carried that principle to its logical extension—even the politicians themselves have no right to go public with their private lives. If Sarko wishes to romance Bruni, he’s welcome to do so but can he please keep his love affairs out of the public gaze?
I have to say that I admire the French for the consistency of their stand. You may or may not agree with their view that politicians’ private lives are their own business (though this is also the position of the Indian media) but you cannot deny that they enforce this principle both rigorously and consistently.
Surely that’s an improvement on the American way where press and politicians conspire to create an ethos in which private lives are in the public domain and loveless couples pose hand in hand and declare their faith in the American family. The press plays up this nonsense, all the while waiting to catch one of them with their pants down so that they can get some global scoop about oral sex.
Far better to follow the French principle. Do what you like and as long as it does not affect your work, it’s your own business. But turn your love life into some vulgar American-style media spectacle and you will lose the respect of the public.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org