It was just two months ago that the French media shrugged off their curiosity about President Nicolas Sarkozy's divorce from his wife Cécilia, and said they would not pry into the private life of their first-ever single President, nor care which women he chose to date.
Yeah, right. That cool vanished on Monday, with the unveiling of Sarkozy's new love interest the singer and former supermodel Carla Bruni, whose previous companions include Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton. The conservative daily newspaper Le Figaro which strongly supports Sarkozy on Monday splashed a quarter-page photo of Bruni on its front page, which is typically reserved for dry political news, under the headline: "The president's girlfriend." Bruni's photo appeared next to an article predicting a tough week ahead for Sarkozy's reform program, over which trade unions are planning mass strikes. The President's happier news lay tucked inside the "France Politique" section, where one half-page showed three more images of Bruni, 39, including one of her without trousers, her flawless bare legs crossed on a couch next to her acoustic guitar. Although the Elysée Palace has refused to comment on the reports, three national magazine covers will feature the new couple this week, according to the newspaper.
News of Sarkozy's new relationship first broke on the website of the newsweekly L'Express. The magazine's editor Christophe Barbier told a French television talk show on the weekend that Bruni, a friend of his, had told him that she was involved with Sarkozy. That confirmed mounting rumors that Sarkozy was not alone in his palace bedroom. France's paparazzi have tailed the President for weeks in search of his mystery woman, and French television journalist Laurence Ferrari recently sued two gossip magazines for linking her romantically to Sarkozy. By Saturday, Sarkozy was apparently ready to end the mystery, though his public debut was hardly romantic: He and Bruni joined the heavy pre-Christmas crowds at Disneyland Paris, with their respective children, and posed for photographers.
Leave aside the fact that Bruni an heiress to a fortune from an Italian tire company was once one of France's highest-paid fashion models. French voters have for decades prided themselves on keeping their distance from the sex lives of their Presidents. Indeed, it is widely assumed among the French that their political leaders have affairs, on the assumption that as Henry Kissinger once noted power is a great aphrodisiac. President Francois Mitterrand's decades-long affair outside his marriage was reported by journalists only after his child from the relationship appeared at his funeral. And during Bill Clinton's sex scandal and impeachment in 1996, the French told American reporters that the event simply proved to them the overly prudish nature of the United States. "The French derided America about how crazy we were," says Diane Johnson, the American best-selling author of Le Divorce and Le Mariage, who lives most of the year in Paris.
The front-page photo of Bruni a startling break from Le Figaro's sober tradition was highly controversial inside the paper's newsroom. Indeed, it was published after a last-minute order from publisher Etienne Mougeotte on Sunday evening, when he overrode the decision by the editors to feature France's Olympic swimmer Laure Manadou on page one. "This is a big bone of contention," Charles Jaigu, who covers Sarkozy for Le Figaro, told TIME on Monday. "But it is a new fact that we have to deal with." That new reality includes a sharp drop in advertising revenues at the paper, as well as other publications, as they compete on the newsstands with numerous flashy gossip magazines.
So is France's newfound hunger for celebrity tidbits a sign of its increasing Americanization? Johnson says she believes Bruni's star status, coupled with the kinetic 52-year-old President, is driving the strong interest in Sarkozy's sex life. "The constellation of power and glamour is pretty irresistible, especially in a place as fashion conscious as this," she says. "This would be like Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy." Among his detractors in France, the president has regularly been called "Sarko l'americain." And like Kennedy, Sarkozy has carefully crafted his image as the modernizing President who will shatter outdated traditions including perhaps the tradition of disregarding French leaders' sexual relationships. In contrast to the aloof Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy has stormed across the world, being photographed as he jogs, eats, drinks, and meets countless world leaders. "Sarkozy does not like to hide things," says Jaigu. "It is his trademark. Now he will never be able to hide from photographers." Then again, even Sarkozy could find himself upstaged by the ever-photogenic Bruni.