“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
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