UPDATE: Jan. 25, 2008 - Sarkozy arrived in India today, accompanied by a 300-member delegation but without Carla Bruni. So it looks like policy is going to be the story rather than affairs of the heart.
Original post, Jan. 20:
When French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrives in Delhi as a guest at the Republic Day celebrations on January 26th, there is a danger that he will set off an international incident, according to the BBC.
As everyone who has looked at a grocery store magazine rack in the past few months knows, Sarkozy divorced his wife of 11 years, Cecilia, last October and is now engaged to former supermodel Carla Bruni. So if Bruni accompanies President Sarkozy to Delhi and if they are not married by then, how should she be treated according to diplomatic protocol? Like a First Lady? Like any other guest of honor? Should she not go at all?
I bring this up because despite the dramatic headline (“Sarkozy in India protocol issue”) it really is not a story. Firstly, according to the BBC piece and a similar article in the New York Times, the French embassy has not yet released the list of diplomats and dignitaries accompanying Sarkozy so Bruni might not even come to India. According to the Gulf Daily News (a Bahrain-based paper that I obviously don’t get to cite very often), Indian officials are waiting for the French list before coming to any conclusions. And then there’s the report by Agence-France Presse (via the New York Times) that Sarkozy and Bruni already got married in secret, potentially making the whole matter moot.
The problem in the coverage of the non-incident incident is clear from the last sentence in the BBC piece: “Some say if recent reports that President Sarkozy has already married Ms Bruni in a secret ceremony in Paris are correct, it will make things a lot easier for his rather conservative hosts.”
The article quotes French diplomats basically saying that a decision will have to wait, but the frisson in the piece is generated by the assumption that the Indian government will balk at whatever arrangement is made for Bruni. However, on the Indian side, the article offers only the claim that “in private many diplomats are hinting at the ‘protocol confusion’ gripping the government.” There is also a pleasant if predictable quote from a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) saying that whatever the situation guests should be treated well because that’s part of Indian culture.
For months, the Indian media have been filled with gossipy pieces about Sarkozy's love life. But in this case, rather than making the story a vague jab at Indian prudishness, it might have been better to consider what France and India have to gain from a stronger partnership:
Sarkozy’s visit was planned in part in the hope of signing a nuclear deal to complement the accord signed with his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, in February 2006. Now Indian officials have been quoted as saying that they very much doubt the deal will go through during the visit because of the deal’s complexity. For France to go through with the agreement, it has to be cleared by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the lesser-known but influential 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), whose purpose is to ensure that civilian nuclear technology is not given to those intent on weaponizing it. India’s domestic obstacle to the deal is vociferous opposition by some political parties to further development of nuclear technology.
But Sarkozy has more ambitious plans for India. On January 8th, he argued in his annual press conference laying out the year’s legislative agenda that “France will do her utmost to get the G8 to become the G13” by including China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa. Likewise, he continues, “France will do her utmost to get Germany, Japan, Brazil, India and a major African country to become Permanent Members of the Security Council.” The Hindu ran a brief summary of the announcement with the slightly nonsensical headline “Make India permanent U.N. member.”
With or without Bruni in tow, Sarkozy’s visit is bound to be interesting because of the political issues on the table. But then again who could resist a few articles about Sarkozy's sex life? Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.**