Carla, the Red Brigades and the battle for Sarkozy’s ear

A political storm blew up today after the French first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, admitted that she had helped to persuade her husband to block the extradition of a hunger-striking, left-wing terrorist to Italy.

The Italian-born Mme Bruni-Sarkozy's intervention, in what was already an explosive Franco-Italian political issue, is the first overt example of the "gut left-wing" First Lady and pop-singer influencing the right-wing French President.

The Elysée Palace announced yesterday that Marina Petrella, 54, a leader of the Rome cell of the ultra-left Red Brigades terrorist movement from 1976-82, would not after all be extradited to Italy. Ms Petrella, who has lived in France for 15 years, was arrested near Paris soon after President Nicolas Sarkozy came to power last year promising, among other things, a tougher approach to crime and terrorism.

The former Italian terrorist leader, who has a husband and two children in France, began a hunger-strike which she continued even after she was released from custody by a French court two months ago.

It emerged yesterday that Carla Bruni-Sarkozy had visited an extremely weak Ms Petrella in hospital last Wednesday to tell her that her extradition would be cancelled on "humanitarian" grounds. The First Lady also admitted, in a startlingly frank interview with a French newspaper yesterday, that she and her sister, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, had mounted a concerted campaign to persuade President Sarkozy to block the extradition.

"We could not let this woman die," Mme Bruni-Sarkozy told the newspaper, Libération. "The situation had become intolerable, dangerous."

Mme Bruni-Sarkozy described herself earlier this year as a "gut left-winger" who intends to work for humanitarian causes. Her concern for the fate of the ex-terrorist Ms Petrella - although a passionate cause for many left-wing intellectuals in France - may seem strange. She, and her sister, Valeria, an actress and film-director, are part of a wealthy Milanese industrial family which fled Italy for France in the 1970s to escape the threat of the Red Brigades and other ultra left-wing terrorist groups.

News of the First Lady's intervention, and the cancellation of Mme Petrella's extradition, provoked intense fury in Italy yesterday. An Italian support group for victims of domestic terrorism in the so-called "years of lead" said that it had chartered a train to bring scores of its members to Paris to demonstrate outside the Elysée Palace next weekend.

Bruno Berardi, president of the association, said that the train would be filled by "members of dozens of families (of victims of terror) crippled by grief and outraged by the lack of concern that they have been shown." Isabella Bertolin, a political ally of the right-wing prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi said yesterday that it was a "poor joke" to give "humanitarian" consideration to a woman "convicted of murder, robbery and kidnapping".

In her interview with Liberation today, the French First Lady said that the decision should be seen as an act of humanitarian understanding, not a "defeat for the Italian justice system".

Although she gave most of the credit for changing President Sarkozy's mind to the persuasive powers of her sister, Valeria, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy helped to organize a series of meetings in recent days between the President and Mme Petrella's lawyer and doctors.

It is unusual, to say the least, for a French President to allow himself to be lobbied directly in this way. Quite apart from the rights and wrongs of a complex case, the President's decision will renew concerns in France about M. Sarkozy's intensely personal, and some say clannish, style of government. It will also reinforce fears within the President's own centre-right party that M. Sarkozy's election promise to deliver an "unashamed" authoritarian approach to crime, terrorism and immigration is being undermined by the more humanitarian approach of his wife.

In an interview with the French radio station Europe 1 today, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi said that she had visited Marina Petrella in prison and in hospital on several occasions to build up a "personal and immediate understanding" of the case. "I gave my opinion to my sister (Carla Bruni-Sarkozy) who gave her opinion to her husband," she said.

Mme Bruni-Tedeschi said that she had also met President Sarkozy on several occasions to discuss the Petrella case and that he had "absolutely listened" to her.

Since her extradition was ordered earlier this year, Marina Petrella is said by her doctors to have suffered not just from her hunger strike but from a "collapse of the will to live". Ms Petrella has been convicted in Italy of organizing a series of terrorist actions by the Rome branch of the Red Brigades, including the murder of a police chief and the kidnapping and murder of the former Prime Minister, Aldo Moro in 1978.

She spent eight years in jail in Italy before her trial in 1988 but was released pending appeal. Just before she was finally sentenced to life imprisonment in 1993, she fled to France, taking advantage of an amnesty declared by President François Mitterrand for Italian ultra left-wingers prepared to foreswear the "infernal machine" of terrorism.

At the time, the French amnesty was tacitly accepted by the Italian authorities as a way of dismantling the terror groups. In the last five years, the immunity of a series of ageing Red Brigades leaders in France has been challenged by right wing governments in both countries.

Ms Petrella has created a completely new life in France, working first in menial jobs and then as a social worker. She married a French-Algerian and has an 11-year-old French daughter. She also has a daughter in her 20s, born while she was in prison in Italy.

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