Last week, at the G8 summit in Deauville, France, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, supermodel-turned-wife of the French president, greeted her fellow first wives in what was quite obviously a white maternity smock.
After exchanging air kisses with such lesser-known political spouses as Svetlana Medvedev, wife of the Russian president, Geertrui Van Rompuy-Windels, wife of the European Council president, and our very own Laureen Harper, Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy and her lady friends posed for an obligatory photo op. As the cameras zoomed in on her burgeoning baby bump (a.k.a. the worst-kept secret in Europe), Bruni smiled coyly and motioned to her belly. “Sooner or later it’s gonna come out,” she said—an observation that is as correct on a political level as it is a biological fact.
Earlier this year, Nicolas Sarkozy’s approval ratings slumped to an all-time low, with the worst polls showing that a scant 21 per cent of the country approved of his leadership. Then-unconfirmed rumours that his 43-year-old wife was pregnant (apparently with twins via IVF treatment, if you believe the tabloids) did not initially seem to give him much bounce in the polls. But with the surprise career implosion of former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn (who until recently was widely touted as Sarkozy’s top political rival), the French president’s prospects for re-election in 2012 are looking somewhat brighter.
Surely it cannot hurt that his wife—an Italian-born heiress who once dated Mick Jagger and declared that monogamy “bored” her—appears to have successfully shifted her image from glamazon songstress to glowing expectant mother. Unofficial confirmation of the couple’s pregnancy came when Sarkozy’s own father let it slip to a German newspaper that the couple did not yet know the baby’s sex, but that he was “sure it’ll be a girl who’ll be just as beautiful as Carla.” For the twice-divorced Sarkozy, who ruffled French conservative feathers when he married Bruni in 2008, shortly after splitting with his former wife, the chance to play the family man comes at a politically opportune moment.
The next French election campaign will heat up in October, around the same time Bruni-Sarkozy is reportedly due. While it’s impossible to deny that her pregnancy is conveniently timed, only the most cynical commentators have condemned it as a publicity move. Columnist Anne Perkins recently wrote in the Guardian that the Sarkozy marriage is “an exercise in vanity which leaves only the most credulous supposing the pregnancy is a happy accident.”
The assumption, of course, is that the French first couple is attempting to emulate the winning British formula of “first-fathers” who have impregnated their spouses while running for—or having been recently elected to—the nation’s highest offices. Indeed, the last three British prime ministers—Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron—all fathered children while in office (Brown was chancellor of the exchequer at the time), a fact that helped to humanize their respective public images.
Whether Sarkozy’s impending fatherhood will result in a public relations boost remains to be seen. At 56, he already has three sons from his two previous marriages (Bruni-Sarkozy also has one son with a former lover). Even with a fecund Carla blooming at his side, he will have to work hard to overcome his reputation as an ineffective leader who has failed to revitalize the French economy as promised.
Still, as Perkins points out, there is undeniable social currency in becoming a political daddy. “Paternity is both the ultimate triumph of the macho and the stage on which the politician can legitimately perform the father-protector role,” she wrote. “It is an artifice that conceals the less saleable truth: that politics is a question of the ruthless exercise of power. Family authenticates humanity.”
Samantha Cameron’s very visible campaign-trail glow, which resulted in a baby girl born in August last year, was credited with giving the Tories an early lead in last year’s British election campaign. And like Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy, Sarah Brown, Cherie Blair and Samantha Cameron all had their most recent pregnancies relatively late in life (at 39, Cameron was the youngest of the bunch, at the time of her youngest child’s birth, by several years). This similarity suggests that, as a tribe, European political wives are particularly willing to brave the potential health risks of a late-in-life pregnancy in exchange for the payoff. But are they having more children in an effort to aid their spouses’ careers? It’s impossible to know for sure.
Carla Bruni-Sarkozy’s popularity in France has vacillated over the years. While she was once voted the nation’s “most irritating celebrity,” one recent poll found that she and Sarkozy were the country’s best-loved celebrity couple—an honour that suggests they are stronger together than apart. Now, with a new baby on the way, Bruni-Sarkozy’s star status seems set to soar to new heights. But while her pregnancy is obvious, for now she’s still refusing to flaunt it. As she recently said in a public interview, “My lips are sealed to protect something and to protect all the work [my husband] does. I would really like to talk about it, but then it would take over everything else.”
Her husband should be so lucky.