Rhiannon Harries: Carla Bruni's calamity could improve Anglo-Franco relations no end

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The Independent Online

La pauvre Carla, eh? "My youth regards me cruelly," France's First Lady once breathily intoned in one of her songs. Not half as cruelly as those who have been gleefully ripping into the unflattering photos that emerged of Mme Bruni-Sarkozy last week.

Bruni is not the kind of woman one generally feels sorry for. Like Angelina Jolie, she has a propensity for knowingly provocative pronouncements about love and sex that invite men to see her as fantasy made flesh, while irritating and intimidating women in equal measure.

And it's always difficult, from this side of the Channel, to summon much sympathy for that impossibly perfect creature to whom British women are always so unfavourably compared and of which Bruni is the ultimate example – la femme Française.

One only has to think back to the coverage of Bruni's first official visit to the UK on the arm of her President husband for a reminder of what suckers we all are for some Gallic clichés. The Dior dresses, the perfectly turned ankles in chic ballet flats, barely-there make-up and neat shiny hair – all wonderful fodder for our image of the typical French woman, innately, effortlessly gorgeous at any age.

Of course, one dodgy photo of Bruni hardly dents a lifetime of preternatural beauty. But it would be a welcome pinprick to the bubble which the mythological French woman inhabits – a realm where gravity, cellulite and occasionally duff clothing choices do not seem to exist.

A few years ago, a book appeared in Britain and the US called French Women Don't Get Fat. I was living in Paris at the time, and could attest that, in the rarefied environs of the intra-muros capital, the fat, and even mildly plump, were a rarity among the female population.

However, the book's premise – that French women would never do anything so unchic as go on an official diet or sweat at the gym – hardly resembled the reality I encountered. Who, in that case, was buying the slimming tablets/teas/tights that my local pharmacy was stuffed with? And would my Parisienne friends really have tucked into that espresso-and-cigarette breakfast if it hadn't been calorie-free?

French women could have their cake and eat it was the line that was being sold, cannily playing into a fantasy that the rest of the world is happy to lap up. Like any cliché, there's an original truth – French style tends, often to good effect, to be a little smarter, a little simpler than British taste. But as the pictures of Bruni prove, the grass isn't really any greener across la Manche. Recognising that might do women on both sides a favour.