Politics & Policy

The Passion of Mr. Shallow

As if unions, pensions, and Muslim immigrants weren't enough of a burden, now Sarko has Bruni.

A week ago, French President Nicolas Sarkozy stunned a gallery of French journos gathered at a press conference, an event wonderfully captured by the unbeatable Charles Bremner for the Times, when he confirmed he was dating singer-and-former-model Carla Bruni. He was “serious” about the relationship, he said, and why wouldn’t he be? Would they marry? If so, he said, the press would find out about it after it happened. At least he was honest, and for good reason: It was time, he said, to end the “hypocrisy” that had always surrounded the non-coverage of the private lives of French presidents. He meant men like Pompidou, Mitterand and Chirac, about whose private lives little was said.

In fairness to the French press, if one of these men had been “serious” about an ex-model, blind and insentient as she would surely have to be, even the newspapers in Paris might have mentioned the fact. But France is a different place under Sarko, and that difference starts with the media coverage of the chap himself. The news in France for the last 24 hours or so has been that was Sarko serious about Bruni, and moreover, he was serious about marriage as well. Word is that last Thursday Sarko and Bruni were secretly wed at a ceremony conducted in the Élysée Palace.

To Americans, comfortable with the effluvia of an obsessive press, a secret presidential wedding is a wildly improbable event, as unlikely as decorating a White House Christmas tree with condoms. In France, however, it has a goofy sort of logic: Where the previous occupants of rue du faubourg Saint-Honoré seemed to have moved into the premises under cover of a thick fog of voter indifference, Sarkozy arrived last summer as a story unfolding faster than native reporters were accustomed to working: He had just turned 50 when he defeated the enemy élitists in his own party — notably, the arch-insider, Dominque de Villepin, and his president, Chirac. In the last year alone, he convincingly defeated Ségolène Royal, the Hillary of France, then celebrated his victory by going to America for a vacation and eating burgers with Bush. A few months later, his wife, Cécilia, herself a sometime model who kept showing up in New York with an “events organizer” boyfriend, divorced him just as the French unions decided to test his affection for reform. Then she reappeared in Paris to try to stop publication of a book quoting her as saying mean things about the guy she divorced. Sarko’s response? More jogging.

Any one of those events would have been enough to strain any ordinary French politician. But even though his approval ratings dipped a dozen or more points, the fascination of the French with what they call “le Sarko show” has only grown. Now, after much panting pursuit, the French press hopes it has finally has caught up with Sarkozy at mid-life and mired in crisis. As he told the reporters at that Élysée press conference, “Life is so difficult and painful.” How better to cushion the sorrow of existence than to upholster your life with a third wife in the shape of a skinny Italian woman who recently announced that she considers monogamy a bore? Will his troubles never end?

The question is more profitably directed toward the French establishment press. The “secret wedding” story is everywhere, and at the same time, nowhere at all. The story that started all the frenzy appeared in l’Est Républicain, but it’s a fairly cautious item; the paper warns that the info is based on second-hand sources. Meanwhile, Libération repeats some day-old speculation, while Le Monde — which, as Le Figaro reports, has been going through its own mid-life crisis lately — is reduced to carrying an extended no-comment story from Bruni’s mom: “Anything’s possible,” she admitted.

The British press is more forthcoming: the Times carries a prominent piece announcing the wedding, while the Guardian is more circumspect, editing an earlier story to include news of some recent threats made against the life of Sarko’s youngest son by a couple of banlieu-dwellers. The Daily Mail was on the story faster than you can say Britney’s out of rehab.

Coverage of the putative marriage has been somewhat better on radio and TV. Last night, the usual inventory of pompous, self-important, endless roundtable chat shows interrupted themselves to wonder about their newly -wed president. Like Sarko, they’re serious, too — but all the time.

Maybe only the Americans know how to cover this kind of fluff. We know when to duck. The NYT’s farm team at the IHT in Paris avoids the story somewhat, in typical Times fashion: “Big weddings bring Afghans joy and debt” is as close to Sarko-Bruni as they can get. If the Élysée story proves to be false, they’ll not only have got it right, but also got the last laugh in the bargain, a two-fer of unlikely events for sure.

Meanwhile, disapproving, middle-aged, liberal American women waiting for Maureen Dowd to address the nation on this topic will have to satisfy themselves with the catty coverage provided gratuitously by the Washington Post’s fashion writer, Robin Givhan.

According to the Post, Sarko’s just another “Mr. Shallow,” a dim male doting on a woman made dumb, since “Modeling rots the brain.” Givhan has a point to make: Bruni’s certainly no Hillary. She may be a beautiful and successful woman who’s fluent in at least three languages and whose last collection of songs is based on her interpretations of English-language poetry, but she’s not a lawyer: “It’s only natural that Sarkozy would like a pretty face as much as anyone. But if a law degree was featured as prominently on Bruni’s résumé as supermodel, all would be right with the world.”

If only. Of course, if Post reporters are as good at modeling as they are at constructing litmus tests (or navigating the unfashionable past subjunctive), they’ll never have to worry about Sarkozy, that’s for sure.

Denis Boyles is the author of the forthcoming Superior, Nebraska, and on the faculty of The Brouzils Seminars.

Denis BoylesDennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...

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