When newly divorced French President Nicolas Sarkozy married pop singer and former model Carla Bruni earlier this year, the French were shocked, and Sarkozy lost a lot of public support. But things have changed in the last few months.
Bruni is about to release a new pop album — the third of her career, but the first ever by a French first lady. Her popularity is soaring, and all of France is talking about "the Carla effect."
Just a few weeks after their marriage last February, the French first couple took their first big trip abroad: a state visit to England to see the queen.
Sarkozy had planned to underline France's new, warmer relationship with Great Britain. But with his beautiful new wife standing shyly by his side — elegantly dressed in her gray Dior coat and pillbox hat — the message was lost in a wave of Carla-mania.
Newspapers gushed and diplomats were overheard debating whether the new Mrs. Sarkozy was more like Jackie Kennedy or Princess Di. Yes, even the French were impressed.
Jean Dereux, a retired writer from Paris, says Bruni proved she could play the role of Mrs. President. And her curtsy in front of the queen and that stylish little hat, he says, that was really great.
Until then, no one had ever really imagined Bruni curtsying for the queen. The Italian-born heiress was known in France as a wealthy jet-setter, one of the top-earning models of the 1980s, the companion of pop stars and a singer of breathy folk songs.
So when Bruni and Sarkozy revealed their romance at Euro Disney last December and then married just two months later, the French were outraged. Jean-Michel Thenard, an editor at the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaine, says the French weren't used to having a first lady with a past.
"Carla Bruni is a personality. She's a free woman. She's beautiful," Thenard says. "She's 40 and has a child, but she was never married. And she's had several lovers. So she is everything you could imagine — except the wife of a right-wing president of France."
Thenard says the visit to Britain was the start of a strategy to win back French hearts and minds. Part of that strategy included trying to stop rumors about Bruni's romance with Sarkozy by collaborating on a book that gives the official version.
"It was immediate," she told the authors. "His physique, his charm and his intelligence seduced me. He has five or six brains, remarkably well irrigated."
But Said Mahrane, who follows the Sarkozys for Le Point magazine, says Bruni's main role has been to change Sarkozy's image as the "bling-bling president."
"She is a multimillionaire, far more wealthy than her husband. But she likes discretion, and that's just the opposite of her husband," Mahrane says. "So she has done his image a lot of good. She also councils him on his mannerisms, and so you see a man who is a lot more serene, more calm, less hurried and a lot less nervous."
Bruni will be back in the news again when her new album comes out on July 11.