Sarkozy Love Affair Fuels Growth of Public Criticism

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his girlfriend, Carla Bruni, tour Petra in Jordan. i

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his girlfriend, former model-turned-singer Carla Bruni, with her son Aurelien Enthoven, tour the ancient city of Petra in Jordan on Jan. 5, 2008. Salah Malkawi/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Salah Malkawi/Getty Images
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his girlfriend, Carla Bruni, tour Petra in Jordan.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his girlfriend, former model-turned-singer Carla Bruni, with her son Aurelien Enthoven, tour the ancient city of Petra in Jordan on Jan. 5, 2008.

Salah Malkawi/Getty Images
Sarkozy and Carla Bruni at the pyramids in Cairo. i

Sarkozy and Bruni pose near the Great Pyramids of Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo, on Dec. 30, 2007. The pair took a trip to the Middle East during the Christmas holiday. Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images
Sarkozy and Carla Bruni at the pyramids in Cairo.

Sarkozy and Bruni pose near the Great Pyramids of Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo, on Dec. 30, 2007. The pair took a trip to the Middle East during the Christmas holiday.

Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

In his first news conference of 2008, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told journalists that his relationship with Italian model-turned-pop singer Carla Bruni is serious.

The two have been spotted cavorting around the world — and some analysts blame the relationship for his drop in the polls.

On Tuesday, Sarkozy spoke about his love interest, including the question of marriage.

Affair Nabs Headlines

Sarkozy's new relationship with Carla Bruni was France's holiday entertainment. The story led TV newscasts and photos of the couple appeared in the tabloid and mainstream press alike. The lovebirds were captured holding hands at the pyramids in Egypt and strolling in the ancient Jordanian city of Petra.

On Sunday, a reputable newspaper published a report that said the president was set to marry the 40-year-old international socialite who also has been courted by the likes of Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton.

Sarkozy's news conference Tuesday took place in front of 600 journalists. He began with a State of the Union-like speech outlining his vision for France and the world. But the second question summed up why everyone had come: "Are you going to marry Carla Bruni and when?" a journalist asked.

Flashing a broad grin, Sarkozy said he and Bruni "decided not to lie."

"We didn't want to exploit it, but we didn't want to hide either," the president said.

"But you guessed, it's very, very serious."

Sarkozy: 'France Evolving'

Sarkozy stopped short of a wedding announcement. But he told the press they would find out after it happened. Sarkozy said he wanted to break with what he called a hateful tradition of hypocrisy in French politics. It was a clear allusion to President Francois Mitterrand's illegitimate daughter, whose existence was kept secret for many years.

France was evolving, Sarkozy said, and reminded the journalist that she couldn't have even posed her question to any of his predecessors.

But Sarkozy's complete change of style — mixing his private life with his public life — may be more than some French people can handle, says analyst Dominic Moisy.

"There's always something happening in the new Sarkozian republic. I think that's a little too much for many French, who are accusing the president of neglecting their problems and of leading a lifestyle that is too much in contrast with the difficulties of their own private lives," Moisy says.

Criticism of 'Le President Bling-Bling' Grows

Sarkozy — who sports expensive suits and watches, and borrows private jets from his rich friends — has been dubbed "Le President Bling-Bling" by left-wing critics, who charge that he has been unable to rev up the economy and increase purchasing power as he promised.

The president's approval rating has dipped below 50 percent for the first time since he was elected, down seven points from early December — about the same time he started dating Bruni.

At the counter of Le Mirabeau cafe near the Seine river, Jerome Barron is enjoying a beer after work. Barron says he doesn't think Sarkozy's relationship is directly related to his drop in popularity, but it's what he calls the president's "permanent show" that is beginning to wear thin.

Sarkozy is too Americanized, Barron says. "We have an image of a more statesman-like, reserved president, not someone who acts like a tycoon. He goes too fast. We French like gradual change, so it's his image that's a bit troubling."

Bruni will accompany Sarkozy on an official trip to India this month. Protocol officials are said to be grappling over the proper role for a visiting president's first girlfriend.

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