First lady Bruni meets the Dalai Lama at opening of new temple

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy took another big step towards her goal of becoming France’s Jackie Kennedy yesterday when she braved pouring rain and the scorn of her husband’s critics to meet the Tibetan spiritual leader at a fairy-tale Buddhist temple on a hill in Languedoc. The former supermodel accepted the long white shawl of welcome from the Dalai Lama and posed for the cameras with pride.

The supermodel-turned-pop star-turned-first lady followed a procession of chanting and trumpet-playing monks around the temple before slipping off her sandals and stepping inside to watch the Tibetan spiritual leader prostrate himself before a giant golden statue of the Buddha. Her husband Nicolas sent his greetings, she told the Dalai Lama, but could not make it in person.

President Sarkozy’s refusal to meet the Dalai Lama has sparked accusations from the opposition Socialists that “the only guiding principle [of Sarkozy’s China policy] appears to be not to displease Beijing.” Sending his wife – accompanied by Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner – to meet the Dalai Lama as he inaugurated the Lerab Ling temple was a pathetic attempt to salvage some dignity, President Sarkozy’s critics said.

But Carla, in a knee-length dark blue dress, seemed oblivious to the controversy as she wandered around the temple and Buddhist training centre perched on a hill near the mountain farm of anti-globalisation campaigner José Bové.

She had interrupted her holiday with the President at her family villa at Cap Nègre on the Riviera – where on Monday Bono and Jordan’s Queen Rania came round for dinner – to travel there.

Although Mme Bruni-Sarkozy sidestepped politics, the Dalai Lama gave an interview to Le Monde in which he accused Chinese security forces of arresting 10,000 people in Tibet since riots in March. Speaking as the Olympics were winding up in Beijing, he said: “Since the riots in March, reliable witnesses have established that 400 people have been killed in the Lhasa area alone. If you consider the whole of Tibet, the number of victims is higher.”

This was Mme Bruni-Sarkozy’s second foray into the media glare this week, after it emerged that she had taken up the cause of brown bears, whose reintroduction in recent years to the Pyrenees has enraged sheep farmers there. “There should be no question, in our country, of choosing between bear and man,” she said in a letter to pro-bear organisations.

It sparked fury in the anti-bear camp and much comment in the press.

Mme Bruni-Sarkozy’s low-key, almost demure demeanour as she accompanied the Dalai Lama was in stark contrast to the sultry image conveyed earlier this month in photos for Vanity Fair.

The first lady, whose latest album came out in July and quickly rose to the top of the charts, also told Vanity Fair that, glamour aside, she wanted to play a useful public role.

“I get piles of information about what I could do for culture, for children, education, unhappy situations. But I need to study. I don’t want to make the wrong move,” she said.

So far in her brief stint as first lady she has played with orphans in Tunisia and embraced sick children in Israel.

President Sarkozy’s aides have admitted they hope that Mme Bruni-Sarkozy, who insists she is a “woman of the left” despite her marriage to a right-wing president, will succeed and improve his dismal opinion poll ratings.