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Unauthorized biography of Carla Bruni paints French first lady as 'chameleon'

PARIS (AP) — French President Nicolas Sarkozy's marriage to Carla Bruni, an Italian-born heiress and ex-supermodel long considered among the world's most desirable women, was touted as a coup for the French leader.

But the author of "Carla: A Secret Life" — an unauthorized biography chronicling her transformation from an allegedly tempestuous man-eater into an apparent meek, model spouse — suggests Carla Bruni-Sarkozy has become something of a political liability for her husband.

Besma Lahouri says Bruni-Sarkozy's alleged rivalry with Michelle Obama has strained relations between the French and U.S. presidential couples, and her image of distant, well-heeled perfection has kept her at arm's length from the French people.

At a time when the conservative president's popularity has plummeted, and he is being criticized for raising the retirement age and cracking down on Eastern European Gypsy immigrants, having a more accessible first lady might soften his image, she said.

"The French don't know their first lady, and her worries seem to them very far removed from their own," Lahouri told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday, a day ahead of the much-anticipated release of her book.

All the French have seen of Bruni-Sarkozy of late, Lahouri said, is footage of her with the Queen of England and other dignitaries, picture-perfect in Christian Dior skirt suits with marching hats, shoes and handbags.

Once regarded as a poster child of the "gauche caviar," France's moneyed progressives, Bruni-Sarkozy "turned her back on her political convictions" following her 2008 marriage with Sarkozy, a tough-talking conservative, Lahouri said. "Suddenly, the Carla Bruni of yesteryear, who was free and spoke out, no longer existed. ... and she doesn't even support her husband. You never hear her publicly stand up in his defense, either."

Lahouri added it was precisely this contrast between the outspoken top model who appeared to revel in the glow of flashbulbs, living out a series of love affairs with rich and famous men in the spotlight, and the demure first lady with her sensible flats and downcast eyes that initially piqued her curiosity.

A longtime investigative reporter with L'Express news magazine and author of an unauthorized biography of French soccer icon Zinedine Zidane, Lahouri said she interviewed about 100 people — including longtime friends, fashion designers and even Bruni-Sarkozy's childhood nanny — during her research for "Carla."

But she never interviewed the first lady herself.

Bruni-Sarkozy declined Lahouri's interview requests, the author said, and the Elysee presidential palace didn't return calls from the AP seeking comment on the book — which describes Bruni-Sarkozy's life, depicting a lonesome but fabulously wealthy childhood in Turin, Italy, through her relationships with the likes of Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton through her first meeting with Sarkozy in late 2007 and their marriage just months later.

Ahead of the book's release Wednesday, French media was abuzz with questions about how much dirt it would dish. Though Lahouri said the specter of a lawsuit forced her to edit the book liberally, there's plenty of hot-button material left.

Lahouri quotes an unnamed plastic surgeon as insinuating he redid Bruni-Sarkozy's nose during the height of her modeling career in the 1990s. The author chronicles Bruni-Sarkozy's well-calculated entree into the world of rock 'n' roll, which led to her liaisons with Clapton and Jagger, who Lahouri says was married to model Jerry Hall throughout their eight-year-long relationship.

As first lady, Lahouri says, Bruni-Sarkozy's obsessions have shifted away from rock stars to women she perceives as rivals — Nicolas Sarkozy's second wife Cecilia, who was divorced from the French president months after he took office — and Michelle Obama, described in the book as "the only one in (Carla's) eyes able to challenge her for the title of the world's sexiest and most glamorous first lady."

The book chronicles the minutia of the first ladies' various meetings, suggesting that Obama's alleged antipathy, or perhaps just indifference, to Bruni-Sarkozy has allegedly helped keep relations frosty between the French and U.S. presidential couples.

Lahouri says Bruni-Sarkozy is "a chameleon," someone who has "trained herself to be a formidable actress."

"She is a very foxy woman — I choose the word 'foxy' over 'clever.' In fact, very foxy."