On Bastille Day, Bruni Causes a Storm

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Michel Euler / AP

First Lady of France, Carla Bruni

Plenty of pop albums have been ripped apart by music critics — including a few by model-singer turned French First Lady Carla Bruni. But Bruni's newest release, Comme Si Rien N'Etait (translation: As If Nothing Happened), out July 11, has elevated her well beyond ordinary targets of music snobbery like Vanessa Paradis or Kylie Minogue.

Bruni is now that rarest of things — a pop star savaged by critics and policy wonks.

The controversy over Bruni's extra-Elyeesian endeavours — and the conflicting critical appreciation of her CD — was a virtual certainty, given the passions husband Nicolas Sarkozy has unleashed with his reformist drive, polarizing style and long-established exploitation of his private life as part of his public relations mix. Reaction has therefore tended to fall predictably according to political affiliation.

Betrand Dicale of the conservative daily Le Figaro — whose pages generally laud Sarkozy and his rightist government — urged readers to ignore all the non-musical discussion surrounding Bruni and her CD while declaring it "a perfect success." Dicale praised the quality of Bruni's "dense and fragile voice," the same voice that disapproving critics have faulted as hoarse and weak. That was more or less how the leftist weekly Nouvel Observateur characterized the entire CD, saying it inspired "vague boredom" in listeners with songs about, "love stories that aren't our business." "Where does this irrepressibly banal sentiment come from?" asked Nouvel Obs reviewer Bernard Loupias after detailing the track list. Bruni's CD he says was hyped as "a landmark album" is in fact "nothing special."

But it is kind of special. After all, how many First Ladies of major democracies record songs about sex, drugs and other R-rated activities? How banal is it for Bruni to be provoking official protest from Bogota over her song Ma Came, (My Smack), which likens love for her man to addictive Columbian cocaine and Afghan heroin? Ditto the track Ta Tienne, (Yours), in which Bruni refers (presumably to Sarkozy) as "my lord, my darling, my orgy"?

The conservative-leaning Times of London sarcastically praised Comme Si Rien N'Etait as quite possibly "the best album ever made by the wife of a head of state," which, while undoubtedly true, is also a typically British form of insult. But Bruni is not a joke singer, or a novelty act crossing over from one genre to another. (And yes, I'm looking at you, Scarlett Johansson.) Bruni's 2003 debut, Quelq'un M'a Dit, sold over two million copies and thrilled critics.

But even though Bruni's singing career was well established prior to her whirlwind romance and marriage to Sarkozy last February, her pursuit of it as a President's wife is a major topic of debate. Elysee officials have made no secret that they believe the "Carla Factor" helped Sarkozy bounce back from slumping approval ratings this spring. And with Sarkozy's popularity back under 30% in recent polls, op-ed columns have been abuzz with complaint that Bruni's renewed media presence tied to her CD is being exploited by the Elysee in the hopes of producing another lift for Sarkozy. A recent poll by newsweekly l'Express shows that 55% of Frenchmen and women believe Sarkozy is overtly "using his wife for his own personal image" and his own political advantage — proof perhaps that, even though Bruni would like to behave As If Nothing Happened, her marriage has made that impossible.