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Sunil Sethi: Nicholas Sarkozy's indiscreet charm


Sunil Sethi  |  New Delhi 

As film comedies go, the major hit in France is called Le Coeur Des Hommes (French Men). It's a tailor-made blockbuster about four philandering married males and their sexploits in the classic tradition of French bedroom farce. Brimming with salacious one-liners and adulterous liaisons, it proved so successful that its journalist-turned-director Marc Esposito had to produce a sequel Le Coeur Des Hommes 2 last year. In a country where more than 50 per cent of children are born out of wedlock, where women in live-in relationships have full rights of concubinage and where men politely refer to extramarital affairs as cinq et sept (5 to 7 pm, the traditional hours for visiting mistresses) politicians' sexual peccadilloes are at par for the course.
But in the case of Nicholas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni, the French are less than amused because they believe discretion is the better part of valour. President Sarkozy, nicknamed "Monsieur Speedy" for his fast-talking, hyperactive, showman style, is also a fast worker. In October he was divorced from his second wife Cecilia; in November he declared he was lonesome at the Elysee Palace; in December he was heads over heels in love with the Italian heiress, ex-Versace supermodel and velvety-voiced chanteuse, whose old CD of love songs, Someone Told Me, is again selling briskly at 20 Euros a piece in all the French music stores.
It's not the difference of political orientation between the lovers that bothers the French (Sarkozy is solidly right-wing whereas Bruni supports left-wing causes and Sarkozy's rival Segolene Royal), nor the fact of Bruni's chequered past (her former lovers include musicians Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, novelist Jean-Paul Enthoven and his philosopher son Raphael) or her upfront statements ("Monogamy bores me terribly...I prefer polygamy") but their in-your-face extravagance. Since their whirlwind affair began, they have been busily exchanging expensive gifts such as Dior rings and Patek Philippe watches, lovingly posing for TV cameras on the Nile and cavorting in seaside resorts and the Jordanian desert. In a country hit by recession, and with Sarkozy exhorting his countrymen to tighten their belts, it is, as the French say, hard cheese.
The happy globetrotting couple makes the French middle class grumpy and their exhibitionism irritates French intellectuals. "He has cut back bureaucrats' salaries but given himself a generous pay rise. He is shutting down the number of provincial courts so magistrates have to drive longer distances and put in additional hours. But Bruni and he are having the time of their lives," a professor of business studies in Paris told me this week. "He's an embarrassment, honestly, the way he's carrying on with her all over the world," expostulated a wine merchant in Bordeaux who has a major collaboration with an Indian vineyard in Maharashtra. "Indian protocol is right to ask what exactly Carla Bruni's status is because the White House will ask next. Are Sarkozy's trips abroad an exercise in diplomacy and image-building or a convenient getaway from cold and rainy France?"
From breakfast TV to the mainstream press, the debate goes on 24x7 hours, on whether a head of state's right to personal happiness should be so publicly over-the-top. "All presidents of France have had a back-street love life behind closed doors. But here is someone who puts it on display in his window. It's completely new," says Colombe Pringle, a fashion editor who has known Carla Bruni since her heyday as a millionaire model. Inevitably, Bruni's sybaritic lifestyle and foreign origins have invited unfortunate comparisons between her as the premiere dame of France and Marie Antoinette, French history's doomed toy queen and fashion plate, with whom the French continue to wallow in a notoriously love-hate relationship.
Or put another way, in the words of another commentator, the indiscreet charm of Nicholas Sarkozy and his popularity ratings, hinge on a basic question: "How much loved-up smirking can France endure?"

First Published: Sat, January 26 2008. 00:00 IST