Sunday, October 9, 2011

An expectant nation waits for Carla to deliver

Could the president's popular wife become Paris' first yummy mummy, asks Anne-Elisabeth Moutet

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy has complained about not being allowed to smoke or drink during pregnancy (REUTERS)

Forget little Florence Cameron. Forget Tony and Cherie’s Leo – and those embarrassing Balmoral disclosures. Nicolas and Carla’s bébé, due to arrive imminently, promises to send France into a rarely-seen frenzy, right in time for next year’s presidential election.

Coyly alluded to for months before the obviously growing bump prompted the happy Maman to disclose her condition in a Bastille Day interview about Libya (as one does), the presidential child will, we are assured, be shielded from media intrusion. No pictures, either, at the chic Clinique de La Muette in the 16th arrondissement of Paris where she is expected to give birth (rated on the forums of, France’s answer to Mumsnet, as the Parisian woman’s favourite).

“I made a mistake early on when I allowed my son Aurélien to be photographed,” Carla told Madame Figaro magazine a few weeks ago, referring to her much-publicised first holiday in Egypt with the then-courting Sarkozy in 2008. She went on to explain that children should be “protected from the world”.

Few in France doubt that her actual meaning was that Nicolas Sarkozy should be protected from any relapse into his early show-off antics, when the president swaggered in Ray-Ban aviator glasses with his glamorous wife du jour on his arm, seemingly measuring his success by the number of paparazzi clicking away in the immediate vicinity. This has never gone down well here, where aloofness – even cold arrogance – has, over the centuries, been the default attitude of successful monarchs and presidents alike. It is especially a no-no in times of economic hardship.

Carla Bruni, a wealthy and successful woman in her own right, has always managed to stay far more popular than her husband by a combination of understated simplicity, precision-calibrated self-deprecation – and a shrewd instinct for discretion honed by an Italian childhood spent under the very real threat of kidnapping by the Red Brigades.

In this she blends seamlessly with her adopted habitat, the Seizième sud, home of the discreet Parisian bourgeoisie. Her neighbours in the 75016 postcode, Nicolas Sarkozy’s natural constituency, strongly disapproved of the initial Sarko style, which included parading his three sons (by his two previous wives) and two bottle-blonde stepdaughters at his 2007 Elysée inauguration.

The new régime, in which Carla’s instincts collude with Sarko’s spin-doctoring team, has been protesting (unconvincingly) that “no-one is interested in this private event” – there won’t even be an official Presidency communiqué for the birth – while overseeing a few strategic leaks to upmarket women’s magazines.

Adding a light skirmishing touch to the whole setup is Sarkozy’s somewhat louche 82-year-old father, the Hungarian-born Baron Pal Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa, who has become an unofficial but quite chatty source to German tabloids, on every matter from the Catholic baptism to the (inaccurate, as it turned out) date planned for the birth. There is no love lost between Nicolas Sarkozy and his four-times-married father who abandoned his wife when young Nicolas was eight; but there is a feeling here that if the president had really wanted to shut Daddy up, he would have succeeded.

Predictably, all the celebrity websites and weeklies have been scrambling to find out every possible detail of the forthcoming birth. A picture of the baby is currently quoted at €50,000 by the main photo agencies. Clinique de La Muette, where the former justice minister Rachida Dati had her own daughter Zohra two years ago, denied that a whole floor had been booked and cordoned off to ensure Carla’s privacy, implicitly confirming the rest of the reports – that a couple of €250-a-night “ordinary rooms” on either side of Ms Bruni-Sarkozy’s modest suite will be occupied by security officers. La Muette has a controversially-high rate of C-sections, but there has been no indication that the 43-year-old Bruni thinks herself too posh to push.

Carla herself has tried to forestall probable criticism in acknowledging herself “incredibly fortunate – I have help, staff; I don’t have to get back to a job.” (And a good thing, too, as she has indicated she will use “green” washable cloth nappies.)

She, Sarkozy and Aurélien do not live at the Elysée but in her pretty rue Pierre Guérin townhouse, right next to the leafy Villa Montmorency gated enclave where Gérard Depardieu, Celine Dion and missile-and-media tycoon Arnaud Lagardère have homes – and just across the garden from Aurélien’s father, the philosopher and radio personality Raphaël Enthoven. Far from resenting this proximity, Sarko relishes it: an unhappy, lonely boy himself, raised by a working mother and an adored grandfather, he famously likes to gather his children and extended families, and greeted a bemused Enthoven the first time he met him, at the traditional 2008 Elysée Christmas party, with: “Now you’re a member of the tribe...”

France doesn’t really have yummy mummies, but if anyone were to start the trend, Carla Bruni is by far the best-placed. Like famous mothers here before her – Catherine Deneuve, Inès de La Fressange, Princess Caroline – she’d bring a definite Gallic twist to it. “I can’t stand this pregnancy any longer; this baby can’t come soon enough so that I can smoke and drink again,” she moaned recently, to no outrage whatsoever.

But it is also Bruni who put her husband on a strict training regimen with her personal trainer almost as soon as they got together. The trainer, the improbably-named Julie Imperiali, talked to the press about the “perineal exercises” she designed for the couple, to “tone up posture” and “improve their sex life”. Apart from her rounded belly, Carla seems to have gained no weight at all during her pregnancy: everyone expects her – and, indeed, this being Paris, expects of her – to be back in model shape by Christmas. (It’s not just mummies: all Frenchwomen are deeply competitive when it comes to appearance.)

Carla Bruni breast-fed Aurélien briefly, and may well do the same this time, although enquiries on the subject are met with a stony silence at the Elysée – Frenchwomen are rarely evangelical about this, and take the transition to bottles in their stride. It is likely the baby will be dressed by Bonpoint, Jacadi, Tartine et Chocolat, possibly even receive presents from Baby Dior – although since this is all too often nicknamed “Baby Emir”, Carla might decide to steer clear of it.

Carla won’t have a real nanny problem. She already has live-in staff (to whom she is notably generous: she once employed an ex-convict she had met begging in the streets); and her mother, the expansive concert pianist Marisa Bruni-Tedeschi, who likes her son-in-law very much, will certainly insist on baby-sitting her new grandchild. She can afford to hire the best, who need only be vetted for security reasons by the French police.

Of course, most Frenchwomen aren’t in the same elevated circumstances, and while dreaming of the Norland graduates only employed these days by oligarchs and Gulf princes, end up with au pairs from Britain, Germany, Eastern Europe (there is a brisk network for Nice Polish Girls among traditionalist Catholic mothers), and girls from former French colonies such as Morocco and Sénégal. If you’re lucky, they have the accumulated experience of having cared for six small brothers and sisters, and become a family member, then friend, for years. If you’re unlucky, they are mostly interested in your dress cupboard and/or your husband – and everything ends up in a spectacularly messy divorce.

The Sarkozys will not have to worry about finding a good school for their child (or the vast amounts needed for the fees). France still enjoys an overall decent public education system, and a highly-subsidised private system which must follow the national curriculum by law. While Carla should not have to resort to state-subsidised day care, she might start her child in her local state nursery school at three – the received wisdom here being that this is a good time to start socialising children.

Frenchwomen also have a far less dogmatic attitude to child-rearing than their British middle-class counterparts. Their priorities are different – parents will pay vast premiums to move to the catchment area of a top-rate collège or lycée, but they will not, as a rule, interfere much with the teachers. Both Sarkozys attended private but not especially-distinguished schools, Carla in Switzerland and Sarkozy as a day pupil in Paris, after flunking out of Lycée Chaptal. If their child manages, down the line, to find a place in the infinitely more prestigious State-run Lycées Louis le Grand, Henri IV or Saint Louis in Paris, he or she will be considered to have done better than them.

It is worth noting that in this process, nobody here seems to be interested in a child’s self-esteem: the psychoanalyst Pascal Baudry has estimated that by the time he or she reaches the age of 18, a French child has been criticised 100,000 times – mostly with little kindness in mind. Schools are expected to produce academically-able children, not well-rounded characters. (This occasionally helps explain the humourless tone of public debate in the country.)

But this is still far in the future, when, no matter how next May’s election pans out, Baby Sarkozy will be the child of a former, not a sitting chief of State. Meanwhile the nation awaits l’enfant, the first legitimate baby to be born to a French president in history. However she decides to play things, Carla Bruni will be blazing a trail.

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