President Sarkozy, Carla Bruni and spinning the media
- 6 October 2010
- From the section Europe
It is 8 January, 2008 and in the Elysee Palace, President Nicolas Sarkozy is giving his first major press conference since his election the previous year.
Out of the blue he suddenly confides to the roomful of journalists.
"Me and Carla," he smiles. "It's really serious."
That press conference seems to beg a crucial question about the peculiar relationship between President Sarkozy and his country's media.
In a country where the head of state's private life has long been accepted as being out of bounds to reporters, why did the president invite reporters to speculate on his relationship with his latest girlfriend?
The answer lies in the leitmotif of Mr Sarkozy's election campaign: "Rupture". A break with the policies of the old guard.
Even before his election, Nicolas Sarkozy put press relations and communication at the forefront of his political vision.
He had looked at his predecessors and found them too remote from the media.
He and his advisors had even popped across the Channel to meet the British masterminds of modern media strategy.
They brought back with them a taste for sexing up stories and a new word for the national lexicon: "Le spin".
It is often been remarked upon that Nicolas Sarkozy is the only president of the Fifth Republic who grew up in a television age.
He once told a Sunday newspaper that the best moment of his year was when he appeared on a TV debate show and pulled in a record audience.
Both presidents Mitterrand and Chirac made sparing appearances on television, broadcasting only as an embodiment of their function as head of state.
President Sarkozy, however, has voluntarily jumped into the limelight, saturating the air waves and talking as readily about his marriage breakdown as the collapse of the French economy.
In a country where politics has always stopped at the bedroom door, even when newsrooms were in the know, Mr Sarkozy's decision to open up his private life to media scrutiny has been a gift to the press.
He has turned the Elysee into a celebrity show in which he and his glamorous pop star wife Carla Bruni are the central characters.
He has offered an intimacy and a transparency the French press had never dreamed of.
It was not even 30 years ago when Francois Mitterrand was questioned by a journalist about his secret illegitimate daughter whom he lodged at the state's expense.
His reply, which squashed the story: "Et alors?" or "So what?".
Nicolas Sarkozy has understood that sexy personal tales can provide a convenient smokescreen when things go wrong politically.
The announcement that he and his first wife Cecilia had divorced came strategically on Black Thursday, the big general strike of October 2007.
Almost every major weekly news magazine in France subsequently put Cecilia on their front page and not the strike.
And when Cupid struck the broken-hearted president again, introducing him to the photogenic Carla Bruni in the fairy tale land of Disneyland Paris, he made sure the news came out just as criticism was beginning to mount over the controversial state visit of Colonel Gadaffi to Paris.
But woe betide the journalist who reports Sarkozy's private life without invitation.
Earlier this year, when ugly and unfounded rumours began to circulate about Carla Bruni's infidelity, the Elysee declared "war" on the culprit who was behind the "organised plot".
They even engaged the secret services to track him down and make him "feel fear".
The deference that has until now characterised the relationship between French presidents and the press is suddenly beginning to wear thin.
In recent years, two or three serious and respected online news sites have sprung up whose editors, tired of censorship, left top jobs at newspapers to enjoy the freedoms of the internet.
Editorials are becoming far more critical. In opening up his private life to public scrutiny, Mr Sarkozy - photographed so often on the beach in his swimming trunks and Rayban sunglasses - has arguably lost the respect previously afforded to French heads of state.
And now there is no going back. Whoever is elected president in 2012 will have to take on a press that expects greater access to the Elysee and greater input from it.
"Face it," wrote one of France's leading philosophers in a news magazine recently. "For the first time, just like the US, France has elected a star of the small screen and not a character in a novel."