Ever since French President Nicolas Sarkozy took himself off his country’s most-eligible-bachelor list by publicly acknowledging his affair with supermodel-turned-pop-musician Carla Bruni during a romantic trip to Euro Disney, he’s run into trouble.
His ratings have dipped below 50 percent for the first time. Older French citizens don’t find the public spectacle of their leader in love very amusing. Abroad, Egyptian lawmakers were so flustered over the prospect of the French head of state sharing a bed with his girlfriend that several vented their disapproval on the floor of the parliament.
Likewise, India is all in a quandary over how to handle protocol during Sarkozy’s impending visit to the subcontinent as the guest of honor at the country’s Republic Day celebrations on January 26. Should the First Girlfriend have her own motorcade, as a first lady would? Meanwhile, the same hard-right Hindu groups that protest Valentine’s Day as a decadent Western holiday have warned that if Sarkozy arrives with his girlfriend in tow, they’ll be out in the streets to welcome him.
This controversy has threatened to cast a pall over a much-heralded summit between two of the world’s great democracies. With lucrative deals at stake for the big-ticket products that drive the French economy – military hardware, nuclear power plants, and Airbus planes – France has a strong interest in a successful summit in India.
So, as rumors fly of secret marriage ceremonies either already concluded or in the works, could the trouble brewing in India over the French president’s very public love life be behind the rush to have the couple legally wed?
The news in Sarkozy’s favored media outlet Journal du Dimanche that the couple plan to marry touched off a flurry of fevered speculation on when the happy event might occur. The couple exchanged significant tokens of their mutual affection: he offered her a heart-shaped pink diamond ring by Dior, she offered him a Swiss watch.
It’s “serious, the smitten president admitted. But he refused, even under direct questioning by reporters, to reveal an exact date. “You’ll probably find out after it’s happened, he taunted. Rumor has it the couple has set February 8 or 9 for the wedding. Others say that Sarkozy has already outsmarted the media by secretly marrying in the Elysee Palace, even as he was dodging wedding questions.
If that is true, then Sarkozy missed the romantic opportunity of a lifetime. If the couple sizzled for cameras with Luxor and Petra as the backdrop, just imagine how hot things could get at the most romantic spot on Earth, the Taj Mahal. And, given the current rage for all things Bollywood in France, a lavish Indian wedding would be fitting. Bruni’s own life path closely resembles any number of Bollywood stars who have made the transition from model to actress. A comely brunette who sings is perfect for a Bollywood makeover.
The Indian government will be nothing if not relieved to see the first girlfriend made a wife. As one of India’s leading daily newspapers, the Indian Express, spelled it out, lest anyone be confused, “a girlfriend is not a wife or spouse. Once wed, all protocol worries about the French delegation would simply disappear.
Despite the sometimes downright pornographic on-screen writhing of Bollywood starlets, India is still a deeply conservative society. Divorce is anathema. (Sarkozy is now twice divorced.) And, while mistresses abound among the privileged classes, they do not strut publicly by their power-mates’ sides. Kissing and fondly in public, even by spouses, is taboo.
In this respect, India more resembles the France with which Sarkozy wants to make a clean break than the current one. Most Indians, as it seems many French, would prefer not to shed the “hypocrisy Sarkozy laments on the part of his predecessors (read: former French President François Mitterand, who had a child with his mistress about whom the public knew nothing until the man’s funeral).
Sarkozy, of all people, should know that a large part of the gravitas of office derives from pomp and circumstance. Statecraft is a realm where appearances are meant to be deceiving. When Sarkozy, who otherwise has such finely tuned media instincts, protests that he’s no different from any other man, he comes dangerously close to confusing the office and the person of the president.
Most French people could only dream of an exotic wedding in India. Sarkozy could make that dream come true. If he really is as head-over-heels in love with Bruni as he claims, and plans to marry her imminently, why not take advantage of his upcoming trip to India and make this a wedding to remember? He could meet his bride seated majestically on the caparison of an elaborately decorated elephant, and she would look ravishing swathed and bejeweled in Indian finery. The “bling-bling president, as Sarkozy has been dubbed, can wear all the gold he wants and heap yet more diamonds on his bride.
The cameras would roll, Indians would smile, and France would be treated to a Bollywood spectacle beyond its wildest dreams. And if it’s too late for the wedding, there’s always the reception.
Mira Kamdar,the author of Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy, is currently a fellow at the Asia Society. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate/The Asia Society (www.project-syndicate.org).