Sarkozy's new love turns 'private' holiday into media extravaganza

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The Old Winter Palace in Luxor, 19th-century redoubt of kings and princes overlooking the Nile, has seen plenty of their like before: Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, Giscard d'Estaing and Jimmy Carter are among the political guests who have stayed there. But few of the hotel's illustrious visitors can have attracted such a caravan of media attention for a journey billed as private as have President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and his new flame, the model-turned-singer-songwriter Carla Bruni.

"It is not known where he is on holiday," was the starchy response to enquiries by the Elyse Palace, the same deadpan device deployed during the President's previous well-publicised escapades in Malta and the United States. For five days he is on holiday, with no public engagements and thus no obligation to make himself beholden to the media. But by presenting himself to the public in company with Ms Bruni at Paris Disneyland on 15 December, M. Sarkozy in effective hung a "snap me" sign around both their necks. The international media have not been slow to take the hint. Having been ditched by his wife Ccilia, the President seemed eager for the world to see how quickly he could replace her with somebody even more splendid. And now, when a little privacy might be nice, he and his girlfriend, who turned 40 earlier this month, are paying for it.

They arrived in Luxor, upper Egypt, on Christmas Day in a party of nine which included M. Sarkozy's mother, one of his sons by his first marriage and his son's girlfriend. They were met on the Tarmac at Luxor's international airport to minimise media contact, and were driven directly to the Old Winter Palace on the banks of the Nile, the hotel where the British archaeologist Howard Carter announced that he had discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Yesterday, amid the sort of security blanket provided for President Hosni Mubarak, the President and Ms Bruni emerged hand in hand and sallied out in a convoy of 26 cars, including a black Mercedes with darkened windows, to tour the Valley of the Kings. Flocks of photographers dogged their progress through the town, across the Nile and into the valley where the tombs of dozens of kings of ancient Egypt have been discovered in tombs cut deep into the rocky cliffside.

M. Sarkozy had been married to his second wife for 11 years when his office announced in October that they had divorced by mutual consent. Ms Bruni is the daughter of an aristocratic family from northern Italy, the Bruni Tedeschi, who moved to Paris when she was an infant to avoid the threat of kidnapping that was rife in Italy. After a highly successful career as one of the first supermodels, she released an album of seductively throaty songs written and sung by her, Quelqu'un m'a dit (Somebody told me) which sold more than two million copies. Her previous companions include Mick Jagger and Donald Trump.

Next stop on the President's holiday is the Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh. Then the visit suddenly turns public with an official meeting with President Mubarak. By which time Ms Bruni and most of the photographers will probably have disappeared.