By the time the supermodel-turned-singer Carla Bruni began strumming her guitar at a dinner party in a villa near Paris, she had already entranced Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president.
And after being introduced to the husky-voiced Italian, the freshly divorced Sarkozy, 52, spent much of the evening chatting her up. The other guests could not help noticing that they left together.
The dinner on November 14 in the suburb of Marnes-la-Coquette was at the home of Jacques Séguéla, a PR adviser to presidents from the late François Mitterrand onwards. It sparked a courtship that — as one would expect from the fiery, diminutive leader nicknamed "Super Sarko" — was fast and furious. He would not take "no" for an answer.
Over the next month, Sarkozy called the blue-eyed Bruni — branded a "man-eater" in the press for her long list of conquests, including Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton — several times a day, sent bouquets of roses to her plush Paris mansion, brought her a ring back from his trip to China, and — according to one gossip magazine — even cut short a dinner with the visiting Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gadaffi to be with her instead.
On December 6, three weeks after they met, Bruni was spotted leaving the presidential Elysée Palace. Sarkozy’s press aides asked photographers waiting nearby to move away, which they did. Rumours about the couple were by then doing the rounds in Paris newsrooms, but nobody reported it; nor did they repot it when Sarkozy stopped wearing his wedding ring — the president had yet to give the green light.
By last weekend, however, the couple were committed enough to face the flashes of paparazzi photographers. They looked happy and relaxed as they watched the Mickey Mouse parade at Disneyland Paris with Bruni’s six-year-old son, Aurélien, and her mother. The femme fatale is, according to her older sister Valeria, a film director and actress, "head over heels in love."
Valeria added: "When my sister wants someone, she takes him. You remember with Mick? How many evenings she spent at Eric Clapton’s home to start a relationship with Jagger... Even now that she’s almost 40, she’s in love like a 16-year-old."
The decision to go public with the romance is a gamble for Sarkozy. In early 2005, at the time of a first separation from his then-wife Cécilia — also a former model — he told a television interviewer: "I no longer want people to talk about my private life."
If so, he has done nothing to encourage discretion. He has been photographed vacationing on a friend’s yacht on the French Riviera and at another friend’s lakeside house in Wolfeboro in America.
Sarkozy announced on the very evening of his election in May: "You liked Jackie Kennedy? You’re going to love Cécilia Sarkozy!" He announced their divorce two months ago in the middle of a transport strike; and now comes his public romancing.
Sarkozy’s exhibitionism — nothing short of a palace revolution compared with the standoffish, monarchical style (and secret womanizing) of previous presidents — risks exasperating the French.
An opinion poll by the newspaper Le Parisien after the Bruni pictures were published showed 45% of those asked felt Sarkozy was putting his private life too much on display. Predictably, his stage managing irritated voters on the left (65%) more than voters on the right (28%).
The French knew they were getting an unusual president when they elected him this year — but not this unusual. So who is the woman who has taken him by storm?
Bruni, who celebrates her 40th birthday today, was born in Turin to Alberto Bruni-Tedeschi, a tire manufacturing tycoon who also composed operas, and Marysa Borini, a concert pianist. She was 5-years-old when her family, threatened by the Red Brigade terrorists who were staging kidnappings and killings at the time, left Italy to settle in Paris.
Her parents, who sent her to exclusive private schools, saw to it that she also studied music and learnt to play both the piano and the guitar. During holidays at the family castle in the Po Valley in northern Italy, which was packed with antiques her father collected, Bruni saw her parents receive guests such as Maria Callas, the soprano, and Herbert von Karajan, the conductor.
Bruni was still a teenager when she decided to drop her art and architecture studies at the Sorbonne in Paris to become a model. She rose to become one of the top 10 supermodels of the 1990s, earning an estimated $7.5 million a year.
Her love life has long fascinated the media; her French boyfriends have included the lawyer Arno Klarsfeld, the actors Vincent Perez and Charles Berling, and the former Socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius.
She met Jagger through Clapton, another man who has called Bruni "the love of my life." He recalls in his recent autobiography taking her backstage at her request to see the Rolling Stones in New York. "I remember saying, 'Please Mick, not this one. I think I’m in love'... For all my pleadings, it was only a matter of days before they started a clandestine affair."
After 10 years on the catwalks, Bruni gave up modelling and, after therapy that helped her to cope with the loss of her father, launched a new career as a singer.
Her first album, the 2002 folk-rhythm "Quelqu’un M’a Dit" (Somebody Told Me), was slammed by critics but sold 2 million copies. However, a second album released last January, "No Promises," which was based on poems by W.B. Yeats, Emily Dickinson, and Dorothy Parker among others, was less successful.
Her private life continued to make waves. While living with the publisher Jean-Paul Enthoven, she fell in love with his son Raphaël, who was married. Raphaël divorced his wife Justine Lévy, who sought revenge by publishing a best-selling novel based on their break-up. Bruni and Raphaël, the father of Aurélien, have since split up.
Bruni herself says she does not mind her man-eating reputation. "I’d rather be called a predator than an old flea-bag. Predator — it’s not that bad for a woman."
In February this year she remarked: "I’m monogamous occasionally but I prefer polygamy and polyandry. Love lasts a long time but burning desire — two to three weeks."
Nor is she shy of talking about sex. "Sex, very pleasant. It’s one of the advantages of getting older... age increases sensuality and the pleasure," she has said.
Bruni’s Italian friends are by no means stunned at her latest suitor. "Only those who think Carla is a supermodel and that’s all can be surprised that she manages to conquer men like Sarkozy. She comes from an excellent family, and she’s very cultivated. It’s only after that that she is Carla Bruni," one friend said.
The president’s new romance has been derided in the French press as the latest installment in a soap opera concocted by himself. The satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné called it “the Sarko show... It’s non-stop and the author doesn’t just write the script of the day, he directs it and acts it out himself."
The part Sarkozy played, the usually staid daily Le Monde commented, was “that of the hero with a big heart, using the classic instruments of power, money and sex."
After just a few months in power, Le Monde said, Sarkozy had transformed the office of the president more than any of his predecessors, not only by showing off his private life but also by staging a long series of headline-grabbing initiatives to dominate the news agenda — a trip to Libya to rescue jailed Bulgarian nurses by Cécilia in July was no exception.
In the most recent Paris Match magazine, Sarkozy allows a photographer to follow him into his bedroom as he ties on a tie by his bed, again unprecedented for a president — officially in the name of what Sarkozy calls "transparency."
The Socialist opposition has jumped on the opportunity to mock Sarkozy over his love life. His defeated presidential rival, Ségolène Royal, said acidly that he was entitled to "yet another turn on the roundabout, but when is he going to deal with the real problems of the French?"
The Socialist Benoît Hamon branded the Disneyland Paris pictures "a new episode in the adventures of the principality of the Elysée," a reference to the love lives of the royal family in Monte Carlo.
Christian Salmon, a PR analyst, predicted that sooner or later the real world would wreck Sarkozy’s soap opera. "That’s the fate of soap operas: each episode cancels the previous one. An ex-model replaces another ex-model. But one day, reality returns," Salmon said.
Bruni seems unfazed by all the fuss. "We’re not hiding, but we’re not going to put ourselves on display," she has confided.
Even Sarkozy’s PR machine may be unable to chase away a possible cloud on the horizon. Cécilia is due to publish her memoirs early next year. Sarkozy, who managed to prevent the publication of a similar book last year, has dispatched close aides and staff of the Renseignements Généraux intelligence agency to locate a copy.
For the Christmas holiday, Bruni is expected to accompany Sarkozy on a trip to Egypt, taking in the pyramids and the Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh. Corriere della Sera, the Italian newspaper, reported yesterday that they will be guests of President Hosni Mubarak, staying in two villas for decency’s sake.
According to Marysa, Sarkozy wants everyone — including herself and Bruni’s son — to go too. Marysa has told friends that Sarkozy is a bit of a gypsy in that he always wants the whole family with him.
"I’m happy for my Carla, to see her so happy. It happened all of a sudden, they’ve been seeing each other for a month, it was love at first sight. Wonderful," Marysa confided. "And I’m happy for Nicolas, an extraordinary man, a great man who is doing a lot for France."
Asked about a marriage, Marysa replied: "Well, let’s go gently. I hope so. He’s divorced, Carla’s not married. Everything’s possible, the love is there."
Bruni is unlikely to play the passive presidential consort. She is due to go on tour next year and is said to be working on a new album that she plans to release in the summer. Sarkozy apparently told her at their first meeting that he would be in the front row, to which she charmingly replied that it was out of the question.
The writer Justine Lévy, daughter of the celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, has painted a vitriolic portrait of Carla Bruni as a praying mantis with "a Terminator smile" in a best-selling novel inspired by losing her husband to the former model.
The book, "Rien de grave" (Nothing Serious), includes a thinly-veiled account of how Lévy, 33, came to divorce Raphaël Enthoven, the philosophy professor, after he started an affair with Bruni.
The affair began when Lévy and her husband went on a family holiday at the palatial home of her father in Morocco in 2002. They were joined by Jean-Paul, Enthoven’s father, and Bruni, Jean-Paul’s girlfriend.
Bruni and Raphaël Enthoven ended up leaving together.
In the book, the couple Louise and Adrien — smart, conceited, and ambitious — have loved each other since they were teenagers. Adrien is stolen by his father’s girlfriend, Paula — silicone-enhanced, a former model and a rock star — during a family holiday.
Lévy writes of Paula: “I thought she was beautiful and dangerous with that immobile face, as if sculpted out of wax, when she smiled her bones sort of moved to reveal her teeth... I thought she was beautiful and bionic, with the look of a killer.”
The writer calls her the "Terminator," saying she behaved "as if the world was hers, and guys as well." Lévy adds: "When did I realise that she wanted the son after the father and that she pretended to be cheerful but that she just wanted to destroy?"
She said after the book’s publication in 2004 that she simply had to write it. "I was destroyed, I wanted to die," she said. "It was awful to be left by my husband and when I began to write this story, it changed things. My friends knew it would help me to grow up. It’s true, it helped me."
Of Bruni, who had a son by Raphaël, she added: "If I see her, I’ll kill her."
Asked about the book, Bruni said: "Everyone knows that husbands are rarely stolen; you either know how to keep them or you don’t."
Bruni dedicated a song to Raphaël. In it she croons: "He looks like an angel, but he’s a devil at love... Four consonants and three vowels, this is the name Raphaël, I murmur it and each letter enchants me.”
The couple have since broken up.