“I can be wild and trans­gres­sive and funny”

Carla Bruni-sarkozy, model, mu­si­cian and, of course, former First Lady of France, is seem­ingly a woman of many con­tra­dic­tions. Dolly Alder­ton heads to Paris to find out more

Red - - CONTENTS - Pho­to­graphs NI­CO­LAS GUERIN

Carla Bruni-sarkozy talks love, fash­ion, pol­i­tics – and legs

She’s got charisma, that Carla Bruni-sarkozy. As I walk from the swel­ter­ing heat of the Parisian streets into a chic, air-con­di­tioned ho­tel suite, she gives me a kiss on both cheeks and in­sists on get­ting me ice for my wa­ter, chat­ting with fast and fu­ri­ous ease. She asks me how my bedrag­gled hair looks “so beau­ti­ful” de­spite the hu­mid­ity, touch­ing my split-ends and be­moan­ing her greys with self-ef­fac­ing hu­mour. It is the hottest day since 1976. And I’m here to in­ter­view the coolest girl since 1967.

The model-turned-singer-turned­first-lady-of-france looks ex­actly like the sort of French woman de­scribed in cof­fee-ta­ble books bought by English women telling us how to be more French. She is in the Gal­lic Ni­cole Farhi-ian uni­form of sim­ple T-shirt and snug jeans, brown hair hang­ing loose, and a com­pletely un­touched face but for a lick of mas­cara. One thing is miss­ing, a Gauloises cig­a­rette, but she puffs on a vape in­stead.

“I have to stop smok­ing,” she says, rolling her eyes, point­ing at the pipe with a de­spair­ing face. “I made a prom­ise to my chil­dren. They’re has­sling me be­cause they don’t want me to be dead in two years. I’m 49 and I’ve been smok­ing since I was 15. You’ve never tried it, smok­ing, have you?” she asks, fur­row­ing her brow in seem­ingly gen­uine con­cern. I tell her I only smoke with a drink. “Me too! So when I quit, I have to quit al­co­hol. So my life is so bor­ing. And then it’s two months with­out cig­a­rettes or al­co­hol, and I feel com­pletely healthy and com­pletely de­pressed. Be­cause one sip of wine and I feel like hav­ing a cig­a­rette. And my willpower – it goes away. It goes some­where, I don’t know.” She floats her hand in the air as if let­ting go of a bal­loon, then laughs rau­cously.

She says her only other ad­dic­tions are read­ing and ex­er­cise; a habit she had to pick up when she hit 40 if she wanted to “eat or drink any­thing” (it’s ob­vi­ously work­ing – she has the lean and leggy doe-like fig­ure of a teenage girl). I ask her out of gen­uine cu­rios­ity, see­ing as she’s lived a life of ex­tra­or­di­nary glam­our and dated some fa­mous hell-rais­ers, if she’s ever taken drugs. She bats her hand dis­mis­sively. “No, no,

I’m scared of drugs,” she says. “I’m glad I never had to quit drugs, I would hate that.”

We’re here to talk about her new al­bum, French Touch, which is an eclec­tic se­ries of cov­ers in­ter­preted with her uniquely fem­i­nine, warm, French vo­cal style. The songs range from a bossa nova cover of The Rolling Stones’ Miss You to more tra­di­tional coun­try tracks, such as Wil­lie Nel­son’s Crazy and Lou Reed’s Per­fect Day. My own favourite, a play­ful, co­quet­tish cover of The Clash’s

I’m so HAPPY to stand by my man and that he STANDS by me. What else is there to do as a COU­PLE?

The FIRST three months of LOVE is the best time you can have in life. It’s like you’re FLY­ING

Jimmy Jazz, is Carla at her most Carla; un­der­stated and cool, and like it’s been sung through a smile, com­plete with fin­ger-clicks and a Piaf vi­brato. She chose to do cov­ers as she finds re­viv­ing these clas­sic songs to be a cre­ative process, like “an out­fit that peo­ple have worn al­ready that you find a way to wear and make your own”. Coin­ci­den­tally, the al­bum marks 20 years since she gave up mod­el­ling to be a mu­si­cian, and the song se­lec­tion feels al­most like a ret­ro­spec­tive patch­work quilt of her ear­lier life. “It is like a trib­ute to my youth and those years when I thought life was never go­ing to end,” she says. “There are no com­pro­mises when you’re 15 years old; you think you’re never go­ing to fail, you think you’re never go­ing to die, you think you’re never go­ing to see peo­ple die. Life teaches you that no one es­capes. There’s pain, grief and hor­ror no mat­ter how lucky you are. These songs come from a time when I didn’t know that.”

Ar­guably the most naive song on the track list is Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man; of­ten re­garded as some­thing of an anti-fem­i­nist an­them in which women are told to stand by their part­ner no mat­ter what they do as “after all, he’s just a man”. But Bruni-sarkozy be­lieves that the mes­sage of the song is about de­vo­tion and part­ner­ship, rather than en­durance. “I think it’s a very fem­i­nine song. I love Tammy Wynette and I love that coun­try thing of the classy South­ern blonde girl who stands by her man. I like to sing the lyrics be­cause I’m so happy to stand by my man and that he stands by me. What else is there to do as a cou­ple if you don’t stand by each other?” Her com­ments on fem­i­nism have got Bruni-sarkozy into hot wa­ter be­fore, but I think per­haps she has been mis­in­ter­preted. She seems to be an old-fash­ioned ro­man­tic and I think she just en­joys a fairly tra­di­tional het­ero­sex­ual dy­namic. “I don’t think my song is a prob­lem,” she says with a jokey weari­ness. “What with all the things that have to be done in the world for women, if there’s a fem­i­nist move­ment against my song, I’d be very sur­prised.”

The man she refers to is, of course, Ni­co­las Sarkozy; former Pres­i­dent of France. They met at a din­ner party, just as he’d gone into of­fice, and she wooed him with her lyrics. “The host kept say­ing, ‘Oh Carla, you should show the pres­i­dent your songs.’ I had just writ­ten one so I showed him the lyrics,” she beams. “He kept the song for ages. I thought that was so sweet.” She de­scribes the be­gin­ning of their re­la­tion­ship as be­ing a bit of an all-en­com­pass­ing whirl­wind, de­spite the un­usual set­ting of his new pres­i­dency. “The first three months of love,” she says wist­fully, clap­ping her hands to­gether. “The best time you can have in life. It’s like you’re fly­ing; you’re not sleep­ing, you’re not eat­ing, it’s just fan­tas­tic. The whole po­lit­i­cal thing was the sec­ond thing for me.”

From the out­side, their match may seem like an un­usual one – she’s known to be a free-spir­ited heart-breaker whose exes in­clude Mick Jag­ger and Eric Clap­ton; he’s a cen­tre-right politi­cian 12 years her se­nior. But, 10 years into mar­riage, she still seems to be com­pletely in­fat­u­ated with him and lights up like a smit­ten school­girl when his name is men­tioned. “We love to dance to Love Me Ten­der. I know that’s so corny, but we both love Elvis.” The key to their suc­cess, she says, is that they ac­cept their dif­fer­ences. “I don’t try to change my man. You don’t like The Clash? Well, baby, I won’t

put The Clash on when you’re here. There’s no point in try­ing to change some­one.”

Their most pointed dif­fer­ence is pol­i­tics, in that Bruni-sarkozy ad­mits she has no in­ter­est in it “at all”. She tells me that while she’s pas­sion­ate about hu­man­i­tar­ian projects, she’s quite happy to let peo­ple have their own opin­ions and make their own choices. “I don’t have any ideas about any­thing. I don’t know how peo­ple can care about all this. But maybe I’m self­ish or some­thing?” she pon­ders out loud. “I’m just laid back, I think. And I don’t have a prob­lem with power. My man, who had a lot of power, was al­ways so kind to me. Peo­ple say: ‘Don’t you want to in­flu­ence him?’” She looks hor­ri­fied. “No! I don’t want to in­flu­ence him. I want to make him rest when he comes home.” She tells me that the wife of a very prominent po­lit­i­cal leader once com­mented that Sarkozy must be “so bored” as his wife doesn’t talk about pol­i­tics with him. “He’s so re­lieved,” she says. “We talk about any­thing else; he’s in­ter­ested in so many other things.”

DE­SPITE HER LACK OF IN­TER­EST IN POL­I­TICS,

it’s clear she didn’t take the role of First Lady lightly, ob­serv­ing pro­to­col with great re­spect and sen­si­tiv­ity. “I can be wild and trans­gres­sive and funny, but I took it quite se­ri­ously. I got wor­ried I could do some­thing wrong. I could em­bar­rass a whole coun­try and then em­bar­rass my man. And I wanted to please him, I wanted to show him I could do it.” She says she didn’t change who she was dur­ing this time, but that she had “a sort of char­ac­ter” she used. “A laid-back, neu­tral, el­e­gant per­son who ba­si­cally shuts up.” She de­scribes her hus­band’s time in of­fice as be­ing a “great honour and ex­pe­ri­ence” but also de­scribes its end as “a great re­lief”.

She has no spe­cific pearls of wis­dom for Brigitte, the wife of the cur­rent French Pres­i­dent, Emmanuel Macron, as she thinks she’ll do well and doesn’t need any ad­vice. When I ask her what she makes of the much-dis­cussed age gap be­tween the pres­i­dent and his wife, her an­swer is de­light­fully ir­rev­er­ent: “Love is not a ques­tion of age,” she says, shrug­ging. “Like skirts. A skirt is not a ques­tion of age – it’s a ques­tion of legs.”

We are briefly in­ter­rupted by her teenage son; a softly spo­ken, scrupu­lously po­lite 16-year-old boy who has the same beau­ti­ful al­mond eyes as his mother and speaks per­fect English. She calls him “mon amour” and or­gan­ises his taxis. When he’s gone, she laments on the gen­der im­bal­ance of par­ent­ing. “I’m like his sec­re­tary, right?! His fa­ther says ‘I’m busy’, I say ‘Oh sure, I’m on hol­i­day’,” she says sar­cas­ti­cally. His fa­ther is Raphaël En­thoven, a French philoso­pher, and she and Sarkozy have a five-year-old daugh­ter to­gether. Did she fear that when she set­tled down she would lose the free­dom of be­ing an artist? “I had that fear,” she ad­mits, “but then I didn’t feel a lack of in­spi­ra­tion some­how. Some­times I write about that fear. I wrote a song for an­other singer called I Would

Leave Dur­ing The Night.” She starts to re­cite the lyrics. “I would leave dur­ing the night when every­one is asleep, when the dogs are bark­ing, when the moon is high, I would leave dur­ing the night as if I never met you, as if I had no friends, no dog, no hus­band, no chil­dren, no house, I would leave at night,” she pauses. “And come back in the morn­ing.” She lets out an­other of her rau­cous laughs.

And that line is a neat sum­ma­tion of the charm­ing con­tra­dic­tions that make up Carla Bruni-sarkozy: the wan­der­ing poet who is drawn back home. The dot­ing First Lady who curt­sied, the glam­orous troubadour who chain-smoked. Per­haps her big­gest di­chotomy is the dual ex­is­tence of her wiz­ened old soul and in­fec­tiously ef­fer­ves­cent young spirit. She’s right – the songs on the al­bum do cap­ture the spirit of a cool, joy­ful, care-free time; just like the woman who sings them. French Touch by Carla Bruni-sarkozy is re­leased on 6th October via Decca

LOVE is not a ques­tion of age. Like SKIRTS. A skirt is not a ques­tion of age – it’s a ques­tion of LEGS

“We love to dance to Love Me Ten­der. I know that’s so corny, but we both love Elvis,” says Bruni-sarkozy

CLOCK­WISE, FROM TOP: With hus­band Ni­co­las Sarkozy; in Paris this year; at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val in 2014; walk­ing for Chanel

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