As a tribute to the vanity and sleaze inherent in France’s political class, a solid bronze statue of supermodel-turned-first-lady Carla Bruni takes some beating. The one which has just been delivered to the Paris suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne is uniquely poignant – not just because it is oversized and expensive, but because it portrays the multimillionaire heiress as a labourer. Turin-born Carla is depicted as a plumassière, one of the mainly Italian factory workers who slaved away in sweatshops producing fancy feathers for the super rich. The idea was that even a former runway queen with an easily earned fortune and palatial homes across France could empathise with fellow immigrants from the old country.
Jacques Martin, the mayor of Nogent, thought up this monumental deceit when Carla’s husband, Nicolas Sarkozy, was president of France. Martin, an ambitious member of Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party, wanted the taxpayer to pick up the €80,000 (£63,000) bill for the statue, but his career move fell flat when Sarkozy not only lost his re-election bid in May but was promptly implicated in a number of corruption inquiries. Within a few days of losing his presidential immunity from prosecution, police rolled up at the Sarkozy-Bruni Paris mansion and at two offices linked to the humiliated politician.
The couple disappeared on the night before the raids, and have not been seen nor heard from for more than a month. Rumours suggest they have been seeking sanctuary with billionaire friends, including the king of Morocco and a Canadian tycoon to whom Sarkozy awarded the Légion d’honneur. A major allegation against Sarkozy is that he accepted brown envelopes stuffed with illegal cash over sumptuous dinners at the home of Liliane Bettencourt, the l’Oréal heiress and France’s richest woman. She, in turn, was said to have been granted massive tax breaks by the Sarkozy government, including being able to hide much of her fortune in Swiss accounts.
The Sarkozys’ decision to go to ground contrasts magnificently with the opulent lifestyle the once publicity obsessed pair showed off when they were in the Elysée Palace. Private jets with made-to-order bread stoves, daily fresh flower bills of more than €750, Vanity Fair cover shoots and even a CD release by the self-styled “rock chick” first lady were all part of a presidential package which so disgusted ordinary French people that they ended up replacing Sarkozy with the most overtly leftwing government for decades.
François Hollande, the new socialist president, has a massive majority in the French parliament precisely because of the Marie-Antoinette-style high-living enjoyed by Carla and her husband. Sarkozy denies all wrongdoing in connection with three main corruption and arms sale scandals, but the growing bundle of evidence being compiled by investigating judges point towards the kind of criminal trial which last year saw Jacques Chirac become the first president in the history of modern France to be convicted of fraud.
Is the 6ft plus Nogent statue something the French should want to show off? This folly has now been paid for by a private firm of property speculators, ensuring it is a complete symbol of the greed and insensitivity that characterised the Sarkozy years. Thanks to France’s privacy laws and its scandalously toothless and reverential media, very little has been made of the former head of state’s legal problems. This sturdy and lasting testament of what the Sarkozys really represent would redress the balance. The Carla bronze may be to no one’s taste, but that is what makes it so eminently appropriate.
• This article was amended on 6 August to clarify the meaning of the third sentence of the final paragraph