France's First Lady Carla Bruni: A Traitor to Italy?

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Carla Bruni

The British tabloids gave rave reviews for her good manners at Buckingham Palace. She charmed David Letterman and swung by the Today show to sing a love ballad penned for her husband, "Le President." Most importantly, Carla Bruni, a.k.a. Madame Nicolas Sarkozy, has won over the skeptical French public with a well-calibrated Gallic mix of dynamism and demure. Still, the First Lady of France has a major public relations problem on her hands, in the last place you might have guessed: her native Italy.

Some Italians, no doubt, are proud that this elegant Turin-born former model and folk singer has the keys to the Elysee Palace. The grateful gossip press is also set to mark the one-year anniversary of the Bruni-Sarko nuptials on Feb. 2. But a series of prickly political matters — and La Carla's waffling about her nationality status — has stirred a flurry of criticism south of the Alps. (See where Carla Bruni placed among the top 10 fashion moments of 2008.)

The most serious issue has been Bruni's reported involvement in two recent cases of blocked extraditions of convicted Italian leftist terrorists, who had taken refuge in France under a special amnesty law signed by then-President Francois Mitterrand in the wake of Italy's so-called "Years of Lead" violence in the 1970s and 1980s. Bruni admitted in October that she and her older sister had urged Sarkozy to block the scheduled extradition of Marina Petrella, who was suffering from severe depression and weight loss. Sarkozy, who'd come to office vowing to force the return of convicted Italian terrorists, reversed his earlier decision, and blocked the extradition to Italy. While his wife was pleased and most of France barely noticed, many in Italy were outraged at Bruni's involvement. A week later, an Italian victims' rights group came to Paris to protest at the Elysee doorstep.

In the past two weeks another similar case has emerged, after Brazil blocked the extradition to Italy of leftist Cesare Battisti, convicted of four murders in the 1980s. Battisti had also long taken refuge in France, where he became a successful author of mystery novels, and a cause celebre among Parisian leftist intellectuals. He was arrested in 2007 by French police, but managed to flee to Brazil. Italian media reports last week claimed that during the French First Couple's recent trip to Rio de Janeiro, Bruni had lobbied Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to block the extradition.

On Sunday, making her first appearance on Italian TV since marrying Sarkozy, Bruni vigorously denied any involvement in the Battisti case, calling reports that she'd brought the case up with Lula "slanderous." Still, French novelist Fred Vargas, who has been leading the campaign in support of Battisti and has managed to speak to top Brazilian officials, has said that she'd lobbied Bruni directly about the case. (See pictures of Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni celebrating Bastille Day.)

Margherita Boniver, an Italian Member of Parliament and longtime foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, chastised the "French radical-chic" efforts to block extradition. "The fact that Carla Bruni [helped] Petrella avoid extradition to Italy is something grave," adding there appeared to be "a sort of convergence" with the Battisti case. "It's all unprecedented," Boniver told reporters.

Berlusconi allies might have other reasons to be bitter with Bruni, who took a public swipe at the Italian Prime Minister in November. At that time, Berlusconi had cracked an offensive joke just after Barack Obama's election victory, saying the incoming American President was "young, handsome and well-tanned." Bruni told one reporter the following day that she was "glad to be French." (See Berluscon's worst gaffes.)

The nationality of the French First Lady, who moved with her family to Paris as a child, is another outstanding question for Italians. In her TV appearance Sunday she tried to clear up the matter, explaining that she had automatically gained French citizenship when she married Sarkozy but kept her Italian citizenship. "I'm Italo-French," she said. "I would have had to ask to renounce my Italian nationality, which of course I wouldn't want to do." Along with performances of several songs and inside secrets about life with the French President, Bruni's charm offensive on Italian TV looked like it might woo her native country.

But it lasted less than 24 hours. The next evening, Striscia della Notizia, a hugely popular prime-time gotcha journalism show, dug up the video from Bruni's Nov. 18 appearance on the David Letterman Show:

Dave: So do you still have the dual citizenship?
Carla: No, I'm just French.
Dave: Are the Italians Ok with that?
Carla: I think they're OK. You cannot keep the double nationality.

For now, assuming Bruni holds on to her Italian passport, she may want to look for an Italian PR firm too.

See pictures of Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni in London.

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