Carla's Comeback: Former French First Lady Returns to Music

By Mathieu von Rohr

Photo Gallery: Carla Bruni's Return from Politics to Art Photos
REUTERS

For four years, Carla Bruni, the wife of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, represented France as first lady. Many French people viewed the former model and singer suspiciously. With a new album released this week she is seeking to regain her stature as an artist.

Suddenly Carla Bruni, smiling pleasantly, is sitting on a white plastic sofa in a white plastic tent at the Berlin convention center that serves as her dressing room. She's wearing large, horn-rimmed glasses, a black blazer with a dark-green checkered pattern, and tight jeans. The babysitter in Paris has just written her a text message. It's afternoon, and her daughter Giulia has just woken up from her nap.

Bruni is very thin and, without makeup, looks somehow more natural than in most photos. She has a strange-looking silver pipe in her mouth, and she keeps taking little drags from it. "It's steam with a little nicotine," she says. "I like it when I give an interview. It keeps me calm."

In five hours she will perform at the ECHO awards ceremony, the not-so-glamorous German answer to the Grammy or Brit awards, where she is one of the star attractions. It's one of her first performances since her husband, Nicolas Sarkozy, ended his term as French president.

Isn't she nervous?

"Oh, of course! Nervous! Incredibly! Every day!" She opens her eyes wide and grabs my arm. "I'll always be nervous about singing in front of people. You worry about not being at your best. But the nervousness is mixed with enjoyment and fun. Do you understand?"

On this particular evening in Berlin, Bruni will sing "Mon Raymond," a song from her new album. It's a declaration of love to her husband, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, but her agent has made it clear that Bruni will absolutely not talk about politics. Besides, the host of the ECHO awards will not be allowed to ask any questions about the song after she sings it. Being Carla Bruni is probably a pretty complicated thing.

She was the glamorous wife at the side of a controversial president. The path back into her old life leads through a minefield. Bruni hasn't performed her new songs in France yet, and she gives the impression that she is never completely relaxed.

Chansons for a Late-Night Dinner

Now she wants to work again. "Because it's my profession," she says. "Because I haven't worked in five years. The people who want to attack me will do it anyway. And if they do, they should at least attack me for something I love."

Her new album, "Little French Songs," comes out this week. It's filled with charming songs, perfectly arranged and sparely orchestrated. A girl plays a guitar and sings, and a few guys stand around with instruments. Her songs are chansons for a late-night dinner, chansons to help the listener warm up on a dark and gloomy winter's day.

Little has changed since "Quelqu'un m'a dit," her debut album that was released 11 years ago, and has since sold more than 2 million copies. Her voice has become stronger. The album, says Bruni, is about getting older. "And I believe I've also become more cheerful." She looks around. "Is there any wood in here?" she asks, before knocking on her head with her knuckles and eventually leaning over to reach a cheese board behind me. But the real question is whether she can simply become a singer again.

One of her new songs is called "Pas une dame," a Country number about the fact that Bruni isn't a lady but a "girl." The song, and perhaps even the entire album, sounds like a declaration of independence.

At the Elysée Palace, Bruni played the traditional role expected of a president's wife in France: to support the hard-working leader. At the same time, her role as Première dame, or First Lady, was also the last twist in a great French career. She comes from an Italian industrial family, grew up in France, was one of the world's best-paid models in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and became a wild icon of the Paris art scene with her first album. Bruni supposedly had affairs with Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and, while living with the philosopher Jean-Paul Enthoven, began an affair with his son and eventually had his child.

Then she met Sarkozy, whose wife Cécilia had just left him, at a dinner in 2007. The encounter reportedly resembled an explosion. The president, deeply in love, told the press: "Carla and I -- it's serious!"

Can Bruni Recapture Freedom?

Bruni became the symbol of a presidency in which, in a way that was very un-French, the president's private life became a public performance. While the rest of the world saw the relationship as evidence of how glamorous and crazy the French are, it didn't make much of an impression on the French. The president's rapid decline in popularity began with his great love. Bruni was suspect for Sarkozy's voters, and many on the left came to despise her.

But Bruni bristles at the notion that she now has to recapture her freedom or even her identity. "I wasn't locked up anywhere." She has always remained a girl, she says, an eternal adolescent, somebody who ages but doesn't mature. "I played the lady and the mother, and I played this and that." Even as a model, she says, she began working with her image. "I know very well that I am not my image." Somewhere, she says, there is an avatar named Carla Bruni in the media, one who does or says things that she has never done or said.

"I am what people want to see in me," she says. "But actually I'm chatty, I'm an Italian, I love to laugh and tell jokes. It's certainly true that I've been careful not to make any jokes in the last five years, so as not to embarrass my husband or my country." She points to her iPhone. "The problem is that when I tell a joke, anyone can record and broadcast it. It's as if everyone were a paparazzo."

In an interview with the magazine Elle last fall, she complained bitterly about the attacks on her in the French press. It wounded her, she said at the time, and she was only happy at home during the election campaign, perceiving the outside world as brutal.

'Facts Are Stubborn Things'

When she is asked about it today, she dismisses it with a wave. It's easy to be Carla Bruni, she says. She prefers to talk about her music. She was a successful singer, but in France people for some time now have been intent on talking about everything except her music.

Take, for example, her new song "Le pingouin" ("The Penguin"). In it, she describes an animal she has to teach manners first. Many see it as a satirical song about current President François Hollande. She waves her hands defensively. "It's a song about unpleasant people, the kind everyone knows, and everyone sees someone different in the song. Only political journalists, who are obsessed with politics, would dream up something like that."

She looks a little stiff now, as she sits there. When she looks at someone penetratingly and firmly grabs his arm, it creates closeness and distance at the same time. She wants to be left alone with these questions, and yet they are the questions that await her everywhere along the path back from politics into art. Whenever she finishes an answer, she says: "Do you understand what I'm trying to say?" It's as if she had doubts about it.

Of course, there are critics who write that Bruni angered and even lost her fans, the hipsters who vote left, by marrying Sarkozy. "Well, if you enter politics, which I did in a sense, than all attacks are of a political nature. A lot of people enjoyed imagining that it was my husband's fault that only 480,000 copies of my third album were sold. But the record market has collapsed worldwide. Did all the superstars to whom the same thing happened marry my husband, too? What did Lenin say? Facts are stubborn things."

Bruni once said that, as a citizen, she had hoped that her husband would win the election, but, as a woman, that he would lose. As an artist, too, because she can now finally return to the stage?

"No, just as a woman. These are such massive offices, such important ones. You're always afraid that someone won't be able to stand up to you physically or psychologically. I was afraid as a wife."

A Buoyant Hymn to Sarkozy

Later in the day, she will be the only ray of light at the ECHO awards, a three-hour parade of the horrors of contemporary German show business amidst celebrities such as the punk band Die Toten Hosen winning three ECHOS and former Eurovision Song Contest winner Lena Meyer-Landrut sobbing in tears. Singer Max Raabe introduces her with typically subtle German humor: "She encounters the former French president from time to time, but not at eye level."

Then she sits on her barstool and sings the buoyant hymn to her husband, the former president, which she herself calls a portrait. She calls him Raymond, which she says is a joke, and this how the text goes: "You can't say that he hesitates to cross the Rubicon. My Raymond is hot, like a nuclear bomb. The air becomes electric when he storms onto the scene." It brings to mind a legendary quote attributed to her: "I want a man who has nuclear power."

After the song, she presents American singer Lana del Rey a newcomers' ECHO. Surrounded by the teenagers in the room, Bruni seems like a grande dame of pop music.

She has hardly stepped off the stage when the wire services start sending out breaking news from Paris on this evening: An investigative judge has filed an indictment against Nicolas Sarkozy, claiming he took advantage of an old billionaire who couldn't defend herself to capture campaign donations.

"My Raymond is complex, sensitive but strategic," the lyrics of her song continue. "My Raymond remains upright in every difficult situation. My Raymond is the boss, and he runs the show. And even if he wears a tie, my Raymond is a pirate."

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