Cartoon Carla: fiction – or fact?

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A comic book on life in the Elysée Palace portrays the President's wife as the real power behind the throne. By John Lichfield

And now, Carla Bruni the cartoon heroine. Or rather the cartoon villainess – a strange blend of Cruella de Vil and Snow White, with a mission to take over the world and remould it according to her own champagne-socialist tastes and ambitions.

France has been giggling, and staring aghast, at a retelling of the story of the political romance of the century in a strange new medium: an investigative comic-book.

Carla and Carlito (12 Bis Fayard, €12) is the rollicking narrative of how a right-wing, authoritarian, lonely president came to meet, and marry, a left-wing, beautiful, man-killing pop singer, human-rights activist and former top model.

The 62-page cartoon book, researched by one of France's best-known investigative journalists, manages to add new details to this familiar story (backed up by two pages of scholarly footnotes). The book reveals, for instance, that President Nicolas Sarkozy is known to his own staff at the Elysée Palace as "Carlito" – or little Carla – because he has fallen so deeply under the influence of his wife.

The facts are mingled with unashamed fantasy and told through inspired imagery, such as a sequence of Disney-like frames showing Carla Bruni hypnotising the President with cat-like eyes and a front-cover image showing a tall, confident Carla carrying a tiny President in a baby sling. The book also includes a passage from an article about Carla Bruni from The Independent last March, which is reproduced in a bubble coming from the mouth of a reader. According to the book's cartoonist, Riss, the archetypical reader of this newspaper wears a bowler hat and looks uncannily like the late prime minister, Harold Macmillan.

Fantasy is one thing; politics is another. The authors, the investigative journalist Philippe Cohen and storyline writer, Richard Malka, have attempted in satirical comic-book form to make a contribution to a growing political debate in France. Who on earth is Carla Bruni? And what does she want?

The nation's first impressions, that the Italian-born Mme Bruni-Sarkozy was an air-head and adventuress in quest of public attention and new experiences, are beginning to fade. They are being replaced by another image of Mme Bruni-Sarkozy as a clever, manipulative – and perhaps, given the country of her birth, Machiavellian – woman with a personal and political agenda of her own.

Carla and Carlito comes down on the Machiavellian side of the argument. The final pages – "purely imaginary, but so true to life," according to the authors – foresee the possibility that Carla might one day emerge as the "French Hillary" and run for the Elysée herself.

The book is the sequel to two previous bestselling illustrated books by the same authors on President Sarkozy's rise. The new book – far better than its predecessors – coincides with another, more traditional investigative book which reveals a fascinating, but disturbing, new side of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

The French satirical newspaper, Le Canard Enchaîné, broadly equivalent to Private Eye, has for several months been publishing a front page spoof diary called "Le Journal de Carla B". In this diary, "Carla" peddles a simplistic left-wing agenda while both mocking and adulating her "little" husband and seeking all means to project herself in glossy magazines.

It was revealed in April that Mme Bruni-Sarkozy loved this diary and had invited its author to lunch. A critical book on Le Canard Enchaîné published last week suggests that the "Carla B" diary may not be entirely a spoof after all. The book – La Face Cachée du Canard Enchaîné – says that Mme Bruni-Sarkozy feeds tit-bits and storylines for the Carla B journal to the newspaper in order "to send out the right messages".

It remains unclear whether she is doing this with, or without, the approval of her husband.

Both books throw new light on the endlessly discussed but never explained relationship between President Sarkozy and Mme Bruni. On the one hand, there is a right-wing president with repressive and authoritarian social instincts, and political and economic views of variable geometry. On the other hand there is a wealthy woman whose personal instincts, and friends, belong to the libertarian-artistic left.

Mme Bruni-Sarkozy is already said to have influenced her husband to make a humanitarian U-turn on two high-profile issues: the threatened extradition of a sick, former left-wing terrorist to Italy and the planned organisation, jointly with Britain, of charter flights to dump Afghan refugees back in their home country.

Members of President Sarkozy's centre-right party, the UMP, are becoming increasingly puzzled by Mme Bruni-Sarkozy's role. "She has become a kind of tagged-on left-wing conscience for the President," one UMP deputy said. "If that is part of a strategy by the President to occupy all the political ground and neutralise the left, that's maybe acceptable. We sometimes wonder, however, how much this is the President's idea and how much it is Mme Bruni-Sarkozy's."

In Carla and Carlito, President Sarkozy emerges as an aggressive, feckless, driven man, motivated by a constant desire to humiliate his enemies and show off to his friends. It is Carla who emerges as a calm, calculating, media strategist, pushing President Sarkozy subtly – and not so subtly – away from his apparent instincts as a right-wing hard-liner and towards her own aristocratic-bohemian view of the world.

Philippe Cohen, one of the authors, told The Independent: "Sarkozy is a man who has always been influenced by women, who has always needed the presence of a strong woman. Contrary to what some people say, he is not a man of strongly held opinions. He can be influenced and he is being influenced by Carla on some issues: not maybe on the financial crisis or Afghanistan but certainly on social and humanitarian issues. Where all that will lead? I don't know but it is clear that we have not heard the last of Carla's influence, as long as she remains amused by life in the Elysée."

In one cheeky frame – not backed up by a footnote, to denote authenticity – Carla is shown leaning over the President's shoulder trying to persuade him to smoke a marijuana joint. On the table in front of him is a dossier entitled "repression of drug-users".

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