The French first lady's fame has reached new levels in India


LE FIGARO/Worldcrunch

By Charles Jaigu 

NEW DELHI - On December 4, French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in India, a state visit aimed at strengthening economic ties and forging a new nuclear deal between Paris and the surging South Asian democracy. And, while Sarkozy's maiden voyage to India has certainly garnered its fair share of political and economic attention, it is his wife, folk singer and former supermodel Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, who has managed to steal much of the media limelight from her head-of-state husband.


Bruni-Sarkozy, of course, has been a media darling ever since marrying Sarkozy in 2008. But in India, where Bollywood stars and musicians typically dominate headlines, "La Carla" seems to have reached a new, fever-pitch level of popularity. According to the Delhi-based Economic Times, only the arrival 15 years ago of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana has drawn this much attention from the Indian press.


Indeed, the media has been relentless in its coverage of the famous French couple. When they arrived in Bangalore, reporters spent hours analyzing their body language. Their collective attention was just as rapt when the couple visited Agra, to watch the sun set over the Taj Mahal. Several TV stations even quoted a religious figure who claimed that the First Lady asked him to pray that she becomes pregnant.


The media covered her every step when she visited a famous Delhi maternity ward ("where no foreigner had ever set foot"), and when she visited a facility for orphans with AIDS. Both of these visits were part of the first lady's ongoing campaign to fight against the pre-natal spread of AIDS.


"India's response reminds us of Brazil, where she was incredibly well received," says a member of Bruni-Sarkozy's entourage. Sarkozy himself, meanwhile, seems fully aware of his wife's star potential. "Carla is not a selling point, because she does not sign anything," a presidential aide acknowledged. "But she contributes greatly to the interest in this visit."


A close friend of the first lady gushed that the "star power of the first lady is contagious," as evidenced by the recent publication of a comic book titled ‘American Female Force.' In the book, Bruni-Sarkozy is cast as a heroine, alongside Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher. The friend adds that they had to decline an invitation to "a big party held by a Bollywood producer" intent on honoring the First Lady. 


Still, after recent Indian visits from American President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, and ahead of scheduled meetings with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, Sarkozy knew he had a delicate diplomatic challenge on his visit to India, which is still trying to attain a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.


Sunday evening, the first lady met with Sonia Gandhi, who leads India's powerful Congress Party. And although they're both Italians by birth, no one knows whether they exchanged a few words in their native language. Then again, it's a mystery that's probably best left unsolved — in the interest of French diplomacy, of course.  


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