Rival biographies of Carla Bruni raise the question of which image of Nicolas Sarkozy's wife is correct - and what kind of influence she is on the French president.
It says much about Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, her complicated relationship with her husband, the French political world at large, and her personal sense of self that of her two biographies published last week, the one with which she co-operated paints the less flattering portrait.
According to Carla et les Ambitieux, a gossipy but well-documented tome by two journalists who have previously produced best-selling instant biographies of Cecilia Sarkozy and Rachida Dati, France's first lady regularly overrules her husband's chief foreign policy adviser, an experienced diplomat whom she tried to have fired.
She obtained police and secret service files in order to finger the source of rumours on her and her husband's alleged infidelities; she disclosed an embarrassing private conversation with Michelle Obama in which the American president's wife allegedly confessed to hating life in the White House; and she believed herself the victim of a conspiracy between former justice minister Dati, Sarkozy's brother's ex-wife, and a mysterious "mage" to spread slander about her private life.
She also, the book says, reorganises her husband's schedule at the last minute if she thinks puts too great a burden on him, no matter how much work was involved in arranging it or how many people will be stood up as a result.
And that's the good news.
While she sat for several lengthy interviews with Michael Darmon and Yves Derai, the authors of the first book, Bruni not only refused to grant access to Besma Lahouri, a sometime Zinedine Zidane biographer who wrote Carla, une Vie Secrète; she also discouraged aides and friends from having anything to do with the author.
Yet many of Lahouri's "revelations" and "insights" paint a picture of a self-possessed and intelligent woman, hard-working and dedicated, whose success in her chosen professions – modelling and singing – was achieved by dint of clearly thinking through her objectives, and how best to achieve them.
We learn from former colleagues, photographers, fashion editors and agents that from the tender age of 16, when she started on the catwalks, Bruni was unfailingly punctual, polite, and considerate to stars and humblest staffers alike.
She never threw a strop or complained about endless waiting times ("so unlike Naomi Campbell", says a former editor of ELLE); she never stopped taking singing lessons, requesting blunt criticism from the composers and songwriters with whom she worked; and she did not hesitate humbly to petition for work with those stars whom she admired, yet who seemed at first to be unaware of her existence, from Christian Lacroix, the couturier, to Jean-Jacques Goldman, the musician.
In general, she could have taught Alan Sugar a thing or two about hard-earned success.
Lahouri tells us that Bruni went after the men in her life, whether Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger or Nicolas Sarkozy, with the same intelligent determination.
Again, this is the stuff of self-improving Cosmopolitan and Marie-Claire features: all that's missing from the story of how she inserted herself into Clapton's life, then hopped into the arms (and bed) of Jagger are a few bullet points and a pop quiz.
"You have a ticket to a concert by a top musician whose best friend is the rock star you've worshipped since you were 12. Do you a) stay in your assigned seat; b) work your way across the mosh pit to the front row, hoping to be noticed; c) immediately score an invitation to visit backstage; or d) ditch the first musician for the even bigger rock star as soon as possible? Give yourself a pat on the back if you've answered b, c and d." (Half the nation sighs wistfully.)
Well, wouldn't we all, if we could?
The difference being that Bruni manages to remain good friends with all her exes. Lahouri describes amusing summer holidays in the Bruni family's elegant Riviera house, where an easy-going Sarkozy jogs with one of his wife's former lovers, bikes with another and plays cards with a third. Then everyone meets for long dinners in the Mediterranean evenings, punctuated by the sounds of the sea and the cicadas in the garden.
Ditto with allegations that she repeatedly underwent plastic surgery. None of that is new, mind you: after Bruni, at a chic house party in Marrakesh 10 years ago, "stole" the glamorous philosopher Raphaël Enthoven from under the nose of his young wife Justine Lévy, the wronged wife retaliated by writing a transparent roman à clef. A character obviously modelled on France's future first lady was described as "the bionic woman", "sewn up and Botoxed to complete facial rigor."
Ms Bruni now denies ever going under any kind of knife; Lahouri, however, has dug up early employers as well as former model colleagues who have a different story, sometimes with telling snapshots.
Yet who would today criticise surgical improvement, or condemn out of hand someone who chooses to lie about it? On a scale of sins surely this ranks well below wearing high heels when your husband is four inches shorter than you.
Carla et les Ambitieux, written by two Elysée correspondents, Michaël Darmon and Yves Derai, purports to be a far more political book. Bruni went out of her way to help the writers, no doubt because of their earlier hatchet jobs on both Rachida Dati and Sarkozy's previous wife, Cecilia.
In addition to Bruni, her aides and friends also spoke to the authors at length, so there can be little doubt of the accuracy of the anecdotes quoted. In the incestuous world of the French media, where most politicians, bosses and celebrities ask and get to read their interviews before publication, it is very likely that Bruni also saw significant excerpts of the manuscript before the book went to press.
That she (and, presumably, her husband too) apparently never imagined the result might come back and bite her says a lot about the peculiar deafness which develops after a couple of years in power.
Perhaps in belated response, the Elysée Palace last week declared that Bruni had not in any way "authorised" the book.
Bruni comes across as a political animal of a well-known French persuasion, the luvvie-intellectual who's never seen a liberal piety she doesn't approve of, or failed to take a woolly stand comforted by the approval of the chattering classes.
An unthinking left-winger all her life ("I'm not sure about Ségolène Royal, but I'd vote for her if I were French because my family have always voted on the left," she memorably said just before the 2007 presidential election, before Sarkozy had appeared on her personal horizon), she has pushed her husband into making a couple of costly political mistakes.
One was picking Frédéric Mitterrand, the nephew of the former president, to become the minister of culture. A sensitive, clever man with a genuine talent as a writer, film-maker and broadcaster, Mitterrand would indeed have been a good bi-partisan choice – except that he had admitted in his best-selling autobiography, which Bruni had read and given her husband to read, to a taste for gay sexual tourism in Thailand.
When the inevitable political fracas ensued, Bruni lobbied hard for Mitterrand to keep his job, which he did – something for which Sarkozy's core voters never forgave him. (It didn't help when Mitterrand then supported Roman Polanski against the US Department of Justice.)
Similarly, in her eagerness to score points over Sarkozy's second wife Cecilia, Bruni made a point of becoming friends with his first wife, Marie-Dominique Culioli, with whom he'd had his two elder sons. This played a significant part when Sarkozy decided to push his 23-year-old son Jean, a law student with not a single diploma to his name, as candidate to head the development council for the La Défense business district west of Paris, the largest and most emblematic in France.
His move was seen as blatant nepotism, and the scandal lasted far too long since the president refused for weeks to back down.
Finally the younger Sarkozy himself withdrew, making an elegant public statement and prime time television interview which justified some of his father's confidence in him. But by then the president had been significantly and lastingly harmed.
Because Carla Bruni-Sarkozy comes from old money, and has been keen to tutor her husband away from his much-decried early fondness for bling-bling – making him switch his Rolex watch for a more subdued Patek Philippe, and his Ray-Ban Aviators for tamer eye wear, for instance – many in France still think she is a good influence on him.
A poll last week found that 54 per cent of voters like her, and 71 per cent believe she helps France's image abroad. So far, most do not think she has any political influence on her husband; of the minority who think otherwise, 17 per cent believe it's a positive one while 10 per cent think the opposite.
But her latest spin effort may very well change this perception. Her "great friend" Michelle Obama has just discovered that luxury holidays abroad can earn you a costly "Michelle-Antoinette" nickname. Yet the French revolutionaries resented the Austrian queen's political influence far more than her spending.
The authorised biography reveals, indisputably, that Bruni has an appetite for political meddling - so will its publication trigger a sudden revulsion, if not a revolution, against France's Carla-Antoinette?
© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2010