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Carla Bruni-Sarkozy: The First Lady

 Macadam (France) 19 May 2019

Insecurity, marginalisation and the powerful poison of indifference, these are the issues that dominate the country of which Carla Bruni-Sarkozy is First Lady. Despite living in the opulent life of a stateswoman, these global problems are also issues close to her heart. The ex-supermodel has been campaigning for a long time on behalf of French charities like Restos du Coeur (which provides hot meals to people on low incomes), Sidaction (an Aids charity) and Téléthon (a muscular dystrophy research charity). In an exclusive interview with French street paper Macadam, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy tells us what she thinks about privilege, culture and human nature. ( Words) - By Saïd Mahrane/ Francois Fillon



 Courtesy of Macadam

In 2008, she willingly accepted the role of Ambassador for the Global Fund to Fight Aids, two years after losing a brother to the disease. Since moving into the president's residence at the Elysée palace, she has striven to stay informed about the true realities of French society, fully aware that the majority of those living in poverty don't reside on the Avenue Victor Hugo.

Last month, pursued by neither microphones nor cameras, she took part in a soup run organised by Samu Social, a French emergency service which supports homeless people. There was anger in her eyes, and also distress, as she came face to face with the plight of people who are coldly categorised into an acronym by the National Institute of Statistics and the media: the 'SDF', 'sans domicile fixe', meaning 'without fixed abode'.

Although barely having scratched the surface of this world, she confesses to having struck up a secret and undoubtedly unconventional friendship with a man who lives on the pavement two steps away from her front door. His name is Denis. She adds that "there are too many empty promises blown around in philanthropy" and not enough action. Well, my dear Madame Sarkozy, we are going to hold you to that: this is your cue to act, for the sake of Denis, and all the others who are live in poverty.


What are the aims of the Carla Bruni-Sarkozy Foundation?

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy: The foundation has two aims, the first being to give economically disadvantaged people better cultural access, especially young people. I would like to give people a chance to gain entry to prestigious art and design schools. It's often assumed that an aptitude for creativity is something spontaneous, but artistic professions require proper technical training. We're launching our first scholarship programme aimed at students in their final years of secondary school, in order to try and reduce the elitism that restricts access to this type of training. We're supporting the creative development of 500 final year students who, next year, will receive scholarships designed to help them gain a foothold in their dream profession. We also intend to organise master classes with professionals working in creative fields who will give lectures about their profession. The Foundation's other aim is to reduce illiteracy levels. It will offer to help anyone that needs it, including adults who have a social life, a job and a family, and who are ashamed of not being able to read. I should add that we're not only supporting projects, but also organisations that are already carrying out this type of work. That's important, because I find there are a lot of empty promises blown around in philanthropy. We want to provide concrete help, but we aren't going to try and replace people who have already been very active for a long time in this area. We would rather fund them and raise the profile of their work.


How can culture help people who are marginalised? Don't priorities lie elsewhere?

C.B.S: Culture isn't just a means of "integrating yourself"; it's something that enriches lives almost as much as material possessions do. It's something fundamental to mankind. Culture is just as essential to a marginalised person as it is to someone with a roof over their heads or a job. Access to it is a universal right.


You have led a very fortunate life. Is there some kind of guilt gnawing away at you? Or do you just feel it's your duty to share some of your good fortune?

C.B.S: It's a chance to widen the scope of my life beyond myself. The way I see it, it's more of a learning opportunity than a duty, a chance to lead a more interesting life. It's also a means of manipulating the enormous media attention I receive towards more beneficial ends. Giving something back is quite a natural urge for me, almost a need, really. I'm of the opinion that this stems from nothing more than simple human nature, which can be quite destructive when you look at it up close, but is also quite comforting. There are plenty of people much less fortunate than me who dedicate themselves to voluntary work on a full-time basis.


Do you have any message of solidarity for them?

C.B.S: My message is that the people who do the work, who give their time, are the ones setting the example. It's a message of recognition. It's easy to talk about volunteering, but on a cold winter evening, it's them who leave their houses and go and help others. It's a true vocation, which lots of people have without making any fuss about it.


Times are hard for volunteers, and this has repercussions for marginalised people. What's your opinion of a society where everybody is more interested in themselves than in others?

C.B.S: Our society is riddled with faults, but all the same, it seems to me that people have rarely helped each other out so much as now, historically speaking. I travel a lot with my husband, and I think that we're quite well off compared to other places in the world. You must admit that France as a country has a strong maternal instinct towards her citizens.


Do you get into these matters with your husband?

C.B.S: There's nothing I don't bring up with my husband. I don't bring up anything at all with the President of the Republic, because I never see him like that. Sometimes, he's able to fill me in on the full details of something, but we speak as equals, we're just like any other couple. I know that marginalisation issues are close to his heart. The problem with his position is that he has absolute responsibility for everything. When we see people sleeping in the street, any one of us would be affected by it. When he sees the same people, he is undoubtedly overwhelmed by his responsibilities.


Can you tell us about your recent soup run with Samu Social?

C.B.S: It was an illuminating experience. I was able to observe the work this organisation carries out every day, 24/7. If I've learned anything from SAMU Social, it's that homeless people can only be offered support. They can't be treated, or be saved from themselves. Their choices and their right to free will have to be respected, because it's one of the only things that they still own.


Did you suddenly become aware of some harsh realities?

C.B.S: I think that although I was aware of them beforehand, I wasn't as well informed as I am now. I think it was my marriage that changed that. I don't fly the flag for any political party on my own account; I took part in that soup run as an individual, not as Mrs Sarkozy. I could have done a soup run without marrying my husband; I wanted to contribute something as a fellow human being. The difficult thing about my position is that, even if I don't go after politics, they come after me. Politics are very invasive. They affect everything and everybody, and therefore they're everywhere... I want to distinguish myself from all that, as I refuse to let the people who work with me live under threat of being hijacked for political gain.


Tell us about Denis, this man that lives on the pavement not far from your house.

C.B.S: He's a charming man, who has actually lived in the neighbourhood for a long time. Over time, we've built up a bond of friendship. I sometimes stop to say hello to him, and very quickly we'll have moved on to talk about books and music. I'm constantly impressed by how sophisticated his knowledge of culture is; maybe that's an important crutch for him to lean on. Basically, he's no different to you or me, except that he lives outside. Obviously, that bothers me, but he has never tried to leave his life on the street. Maybe he made a mistake in his life, which knocked him off balance. I don't think we should ever boast about having achieved balance in our lives. I reckon it's all down to chance. We can all lose our equilibrium from one day to the next; all it needs is one thing to go wrong. And, what might just cause some people immense heartache might mean a downward spiral of misery to rock bottom for others.


Is it an unstoppable decline?

C.B.S: You still have freedom, the freedom to choose your life. It might seem indulgent to say it, but I believe that's how things are. It can't be simplified in terms of a tramp quaintly choosing their own bench, but when you speak to homeless people, you can see that they still have free will. Admittedly, they exist at the margins of mainstream society, but even on the margins, you are still part of society, you still occupy a place in it. It's a very distinct position. The men and women who work helping these people directly know how to show great psychological sensitivity. It's not just a question of hot soup; it's to do with contact, making a connection. The most dangerous thing that can break down for a human being is their connections. Whenever I speak to Denis, I get the distinct feeling that he has let go of his ties. I don't know his life story, I don't know about his childhood, perhaps no objective explanation exists for his situation. I know people who are like him without being homeless. Artists, for example, are totally cut off from other people. You get the feeling that, without their pen, their paintbrush or their piano, they could well give up on themselves. The tragedy in all this is that it's a very harsh life. When you take into account the cold, the heat, the violence on the streets, often alcohol as well, no wonder people's health deteriorates. But the help given to homeless people by all these thousands of volunteers and social workers leaves room for hope.

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