Is Carla Bruni-Sarkozy Soft on Terror?

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Joel Saget / AFP / Getty

Demonstrators in Paris protest against the extradition of former Red Brigades member, Marina Petrella in June.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is used to his decisions sparking street demonstrations, but he probably hadn't counted on Italian citizens flocking to picket the Elysée Palace. That's the threat Sarkozy now faces after reversing a pledge to extradite a former Red Brigades member Italy has convicted of murder. Amid accusations of justice denied, the Italian Association of Terrorism Victims says its members will travel to Paris on Saturday to denounce the reversal, which was at least partly the work of the President's Italian-born wife, Carla Bruni.

It is only the latest twist in the long, tormented, and increasingly surreal relationship between Italy and France over the treatment of former leftist terrorists. On Oct. 12 the Elysée confirmed Sarkozy had annulled a government decree issued in June to deliver former Red Brigades member Marina Petrella to Italian authorities. Italy has long sought the return of Petrella, 58, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1992. The court found her guilty of participating in 1981 terrorist actions that resulted in the killing of a police officer and the kidnapping of a judge. She absconded to France in 1993, where she lived a quiet life until her arrest in August 2007.

Since she was put in a French prison, however, Petrella has descended into a profound depression. Her family and doctors say she has lost the will to live, her body weight has fallen to 85 lbs., and that further detention would probably kill her. Citing that prognosis, Sarkozy reversed the extradition order, leaving Petrella a free — albeit seriously ill — woman in France.

But if the victims of extreme leftists who terrorized Italy during the 1970s and 1980s weren't outraged enough by Sarkozy's climb-down on Petrella, their fury was presumably further stoked at learning the back story of the move: Sarkozy's Italian-born wife, Carla Bruni, and her sister, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, had lobbied the President not to extradite the gravely ill Petrella to Rome — it even fell to the sisters to personally break the news of that reprieve to the former terrorist. "We could not let this woman die," Bruni told the daily Libération Monday in explaining her intervention in Petrella's case. "The situation had become intolerable, dangerous."

While that may be laudable in humanitarian terms, Bruni's defense of a convicted Red Brigade terrorist struck some as the summit of hypocrisy and indecency. As a child in the 1970s, Bruni fled Italy with her wealthy industrialist Bruni-Tedeschi family to take haven in France in fear they might be selected as targets by leftist terrorists during Italy's "years of lead." Roberto Della Rocca, who survived seven shots fired at him in 1980 by the Genovese faction of the Red Brigades, would not comment on the First Lady's role, saying that it is Sarkozy who must take responsibility for his actions. "We ask a very simple question to the French authorities and the French people: What if the situation was reversed? What if French people had been shot and murdered and kidnapped, and the Italian government was providing sanctuary to the culprits?" Della Rocca said Petrella's medical condition would be cared for just as well in Italy, which has a health and legal system renowned for protecting the rights of the infirmed. "The irony anyway is that for the victims and survivors of the Red Brigades, there wasn't any psychological treatment back then. We had to overcome our traumas alone."

Evidence that the support the Bruni sisters added — aided by wider French public opinion sympathetic to Petrella's cause — had begun softening Sarkozy's position became clear as the summer advanced. Even as he wrote Italian authorities in July promising to deliver Petrella once her French administrative appeals had been exhausted, Sarkozy urged clemency in light of the prisoner's perilous health — a suggestion swiftly rebuffed by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Rome. Less than a month later, a French appeals court ordered Petrella's release from custody at the request of French justice officials who fear she'd die otherwise — resulting in her police guards halting their surveillance of her hospitalization in the intensive care unit where she remains bed-ridden. Because of that, many interested observers resentfully anticipated Sarkozy's final reversal on her case before it was even announced.

The lack of public sympathy in Italy for Petrella's clearly critical health condition may strike some observers as tough. But it becomes more understandable against the broader history of Red Brigades fugitives enjoying refuge in France despite long-standing extradition treaties between the countries. France's official tolerance resulted from a deal that former Socialist President François Mitterrand extended in 1985 to Italy's left-wing terrorists: if they renounced violence, they could live in France under open-ended amnesty. Scores of former terrorists did just that, living openly and unmolested — much to the ire of authorities and terror victims in Italy. It was under that agreement that Petrella began a new, peaceful life in France in 1993, working as a social assistant and raising two daughters.

When French conservatives swept to power in 2002 on a get-tough platform to battle crime and illegal immigration, the government dumped the Mitterrand amnesty as ethically suspect — to the great satisfaction of Italy. It was under that revised position that Petrella was arrested following a routine identity check in 2007, when police noticed that the original Italian warrant for her apprehension that had been reactivated in legal databases. To many in France — where sympathy with reformed leftist radicals is widespread — the right's welching of the Mitterrand amnesty left Petrella unfairly hanging out to dry. Some also claim a July-dated letter she wrote near death expressing regret to her victims — and published by the daily Le Monde Wednesday night — indicates violent criminals can be reformed through forgiveness after all. But to victims of leftist terror in Italy, it was a case of justice proffered and then dashed.

"Sarkozy had said he would honor the extradition treaty," said Della Rocca. "But in the first case that's come up, he's shown that he won't."

with reporting by Jeff Israely

(Click here for photos of the Sarkozys visiting the U.K.)