If the first lady is a pop star, French media melt like Boursin

A new CD from Carla Bruni may produce another boost for Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency. Meanwhile, the French media struggle with objectivity.

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
CAMELOT COUPLE: Carla Bruni, wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, at a speech in Jerusalem.
Yannis Behrakis/Reuters
POP-STAR AURA: French President Nicolas Sarkozy has seen his popularity rise since marrying singer Carla Bruni.

Some sticklers in the French press have a problem: How much attention is appropriate when the president's wife is about to release the country's first first lady album?

Since Carla Bruni married French president Nicolas Sarkozy in February, the aristocratic former Italian fashion model has traveled and spoken so well that the initial French skepticism about her has melted.

Ms. Bruni is taking on an almost Jackie Kennedy-like aura in Europe – just as France takes over the rotating EU presidency. The "Carla factor" has proved a boon for Mr. Sarkozy, whose approval ratings had sunk to 25 percent in May.

But as Bruni, a singer-songwriter, prepares to release a CD, "Comme si de rien n'était" ["As if nothing happened"], French editors are struggling to draw a line between her pop-star celebrity and her role as a first lady. The 14-song album is her third: her first reportedly sold nearly 2 million copies, and made her France's top selling female singer in 2003.

Yet the very frenzy to book Bruni to "exclusive" interviews and front-page photos has editors and reporters here asking: Can the French fourth estate stay objective – or at least avoid the appearance of favoritism in covering a president – if the photogenic first lady is sashaying from newsroom love fests to bubbly broadcast studio sessions?

"Nobody disputes the interpreter's talent. But her status has changed. As the President of the Republic's wife, she is no longer a singer like another," stated Société Journalisme – a professional journalists' group within France Inter, a public radio network – responding to a deal the management struck with Bruni.

Bruni's album, to be sure, has been the talk of Paris at a time when Sarkozy's popularity ratings are rebounding, polls show. In the lyrics of one song, "Tu es ma came," Bruni edifies her husband and his masculinity by comparing him to a drug, "More lethal than Afghan heroin, more dangerous than Colombian white [cocaine]… My guy, I roll him up and smoke him."

In Paris, such lyrics have media owners wrestling to capture and profit from the Bruni mystique. French weekly magazines Le Point and VSD put her on the cover. Le Figaro, a center-right daily newspaper, also did a cover shot. The daily Liberation, a traditional bastion of the left, put Bruni on page 1 and ran a five-page interview in news space. France 1 TV will air a prime-time interview on July 11 – the day the album goes on sale in Europe.

The timing helps as Sarkozy assumes the six-month European Union presidency, outlining his plans in an hour-long TV interview Monday. He said he will concentrate on immigration, defense, energy, the environment, agriculture, and his most ambitious project: the July 13 launch of a new Union for the Mediterranean.

Sarkozy's ratings plummeted this winter. A series of publicized gaffes, culminating in a widely watched YouTube of the oft-explosive president spitting out an epithet at a farm show, contributed to French doubts about whether his reforms were doable. The first French president to be divorced in office, and remarried in office, was also embarrassed by press about his ex-wife. France was growing tired of the public soap opera from a politician the media sometimes compared to Napoleon because he demanded center stage attention at every event.

Yet of late the Sarkozy-Bruni team is taking on a royal, Camelot-like glam. The first lady wowed them in London; the album hype (all profits will go to charity) adds to the aura. "This album will have important repercussions," says Franck Louvrier, a counsellor at the Elysée, about the artistic achievement and political impact of his boss's wife.

But not all of the repercussions to date have been positive. Commenting on the lyric about Colombian cocaine, the foreign minister of Colombia, Fernando Araújo, said that "In the mouth of the wife of the president of the republic, this is very painful for Colombia.... These things happen when you mix politics and show business."

The first-lady versus pop-star celebrity dilemma may have surfaced most clearly in a newsroom uproar at Liberation. In mid-June editor Laurent Joffrin announced that Bruni would become "editor for a day" on June 21, the day of an annual "Fete de la musique" in France. The news surprised, if not shocked, the staff, which protested that a Bruni editorship crossed the line of editorial independence at a paper that sees itself as a voice of liberal opposition, and that the enterprise can't be "neutral" if it aids the Sarkozy image-creation machinery, already a sensitive subject.

The political desk at Liberation took a middle position, with one editor stating, "We have never had a first lady singer with such an influence on the political image of her husband. We need to appropriate the topic," Liberation sources say.

After a serious and open debate, a compromise was announced: Bruni would come to the newsroom for a three-hour interview.

In the June 21 interview, Bruni distances herself from some conservative positions taken by her husband's administration, especially a controversial DNA test for immigrants that is part of a new policy inaugurated last fall.

Bruni said her basic political instincts are on the left, "But I am not a militant, I've never been one. I have the feeling that people who are completely on one side or on the other are thinking only with one part of their brain."

When asked if she had "lost left-wing friends" after becoming first lady, Bruni shot back, "No, I have real friends."

On Liberation's website, Paris media consultant Daniel Schneidermann stated that "The haziness between [Bruni's] two roles has been deliberately perpetuated by the newspaper.... You might like Bruni's songs. But then, you have to cover them in the 'Culture' pages of the paper."

On June 23, the staff voted not to write any more about the Bruni album.

Most Liberation readers seem to agree with that decision. In a deluge of 1,300 reader responses to the Bruni cover, 80 percent were negative, with one reader stating that the "phenomenon" of Liberation giving Bruni such a platform is "greater than that of the CD."

But Liberation newsstand sales on June 21 were 43 percent higher than on an average Saturday.

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