Earlier this month, France was disrupted by the image of a woman both sexually alive and politically relevant—defiant and proud and threatening. And while that was going on the President of the country was canoodling with a former model. The picture in question was a photograph, published on the cover of Le Nouvel Observateur, the center-left newsweekly, of Simone de Beauvoir, philosopher and feminist, seen tout ensemble, and from the rear. It’s quite a photograph. (It’s quite a rear.) The picture was taken, in 1950, by, of all people, an American—the photographer Art Shay—in, of all places, Chicago, where Beauvoir was canoodling bilingually with Nelson Algren. That news seemed to clinch the picture’s meaning as part of Beauvoir’s mystique (just as the reverse mystique for Henry Miller was that all of his bilingual canoodling with Anaïs Nin took place in Clichy): this is the kind of thing that happens to a Frenchwoman in Chicago when her boyfriend is a blue-collar writer and everyone drinks bourbon and leaves the bathroom door open.
Which leads us, inevitably, to President Nicolas Sarkozy and his sweetheart, the possibly soon to be (or possibly already) Mme. Sarkozy, Carla Bruni. The Italian model and singer, who has been around several blocks, many of them touristique, in her career—Mick Jagger and Donald Trump have both been mentioned—took up with the new President last fall, and was photographed with him at Disneyland Paris and Luxor, among other places.
The Oo-La-La! division of the Mon Dieu! school of the American press has portrayed the bizarre story of this courtship, which came so soon after Sarkozy’s very public divorce from Cécilia, the mother of one of his three children, as typically French. (Zey are a funny race.) The French press, by contrast, has seen in the story something so obviously second-rate and vulgar that it must be in some way American. The tone in the upper reaches of the French press has been not “We have a right to know!” but “Do we really have to cover this crap?” The Olympian Le Monde omitted any reference to the President and his woman from at least one front page last week, while the rest of the press has struggled, with subtle semiotic hints, to place it linguistically in the right geography: L’Express, in its cover story on the pair, called Sarkozy “Le President ‘People’ ” (with the word “people” in English, so that nobody would miss the point), and a number of other journals have taken to calling him the Bling-Bling President, a name meant to take in his taste not only for former models but for yachts and showy restaurants as well. (The “bling-bling” device has become so popular that a debate has broken out over who was the first to use it.)
What distinguishes the ballad of Carla and Nicolas from similar tales is that this time the media is not trying to pry into the private life of a public man; this time, a public man is trying desperately to parade his private life in front of the media. Sarkozy not only performed for the press, welcoming photographers along as he and Bruni holidayed in Egypt and walked on the beach in what used to be called bathing costumes; he insists, to everyone’s embarrassment, on talking about their bonheur and their approaching marriage at press conferences. This is not tacit complicity, of the Princess Di-and-the-tabloids kind; it is Presidential leadership. Sarkozy wants people to think about his sex life, in the way that Bill Clinton didn’t want people thinking about his. The Sarkozy moment is more like Tom Cruise pounding Oprah’s sofa; the gentleman is so vehement about his love that something seems weird about it.
It is possible to imagine that Sarkozy is not simply a man governed by his impulses and appetites but one trying to use a situation to make a strategic point. In the past, all French politicians were involved in an organized hypocrisy, where mistresses were known, and hidden with a wink. Just as Tony Blair used the cold body of Princess Diana to underline the need for a departure from the national habit of perpetual emotional postponement, Sarko conceivably is using the very warm body of Bruni to make the point that the French need to escape from their habit of perpetual cloaked privilege—of allowing an educated élite to have prerogatives and manners different from the great mass of the people. No more subsidized mistresses; instead, openly carnal vacations.
People in Paris who know the President well, though, think that he is a man at the mercy of his impulses and appetites, who is landing willy-nilly where they lead him—and that what is particularly pathetic is his delusion that Bruni is a notch on his belt, when he is so obviously a notch on hers. The real motivation of the affair is the one thing in life stronger than feminine scorn: the never-to-be-underrated power of masculine sexual conceit, of the kind that leads Chicago writers who can’t believe how they’ve lucked out with their French girlfriend to have her nude portrait taken in the bathroom, and French Presidents who can’t believe how they’ve lucked out with their new babe to parade her around in a swimsuit, even at the price of looking a little tubby themselves. Those who loved the dignity and the sporadic secrecy and the sudden intimacies of traditional French civilization are bound to long for the days when President Mitterrand would go on long walks alone to old bookstores, and then make love to his mistress on the way home to his wife, patting his love children on the head while making sonorous pronouncements about life and destiny. The ballad of President Bling-Bling and Carla Bruni is a reminder of a deep and permanent truth, which the French once knew better than anyone: there are worse things in this world than a little organized hypocrisy.