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Love and Politics in France

02/05/08 5:55PM By Mike Martin
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(HOST) Commentator Mike Martin writes about issues of culture and education and teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School. Lately, he's been thinking about how love affairs have hurt the careers of many American politicians, while the French have always been fond of leaders who are great lovers. But that may be changing.

(MARTIN) Louis XIV enjoyed a constant parade of famous mistresses and the longest reign of any French king. Louis XVI, on the other hand, was slow to produce an heir, wasn't much of a ladies' man, and eventually his subjects cut off his head. Years later, the French loved discussing Napoleon's foreign adventures - not all of them military - as well as his passionate relationship with Josephine, which eventually ended in divorce. And when President François Mitterrand's mistress and illegitimate daughter attended his funeral, the French discovered a second family he'd kept secret from them for many years. But instead of feeling duped, they approved of their journalists' discretion and fawned over their newly discovered first daughter.

So perhaps President Nicolas Sarkozy expected the French to embrace their new First Lady, Carla Bruni. She and Sarkozy were quietly married at the Elysée Palace last weekend and ended some hot speculation about their very public courtship. Sarkozy has been president only since last May, and divorced only since October, so his whirlwind love affair with Bruni has seemed feverish, even for the hyper-active Sarkozy. Last December, for instance, he brought his soon-to-be Italian mother-in-law to meet the Pope one week and her daughter on an official visit to Egypt days later. Some Egyptian legislators objected and demanded that the French president and his companion keep separate bedrooms. And it has been reported that the Vatican discreetly arranged for Bruni to miss the Rome visit.

Carla Bruni is a pop star, top-model, and heiress, whose extensive A-list of ex-boyfriends includes Mick Jagger. She doesn't exactly blend into the crowd, and Sarkozy insists they will not run from the paparazzi. But the President has sometimes appeared to want it both ways: he said it was serious with "Carla" at an official press conference, posed with her for photographers in front of the Great Pyramids, and then got testy and demanded privacy when journalists kept asking about her.

Some French worry about the increasingly fuzzy relationship between famous journalists, celebrities, millionaires, and politicians. Others have complained that Sarkozy is demeaning the presidency by being a little too casual. Ségolène Royal even went so far as to say that the press risks making Sarkozy into a cult-figure by obsessively reporting on his personal life.

One thing is sure, while the media are covering "Sarko & Carla," they are not reporting on some important problems elsewhere. Maybe that's a good lesson for our press corps too, you know, a little more debate on the issues and maybe a little less about our politicians' zinger contests. And maybe a lot less about Brittany, Paris, and Brangelina.

But don't worry about the French. They're a savvy electorate and know a media circus when they see one: Sarkozy is down 13 points in a new poll this week. It appears that his honeymoon - with the French public at least - is over.

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