Bruni’s cyber bra brouhaha

First Carla Bruni’s nipples sent the British press into a frenzy. Then a flurry of tweets had the Fr

BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour, 15 March 2010. A long interview with Prime Minister Gordon Brown is followed by "Going bra-less", an item born of a revealing Roland Mouret dress worn by Carla Bruni at a state dinner on 2 March. The debate, between the journalists Lorraine Candy and Sarah Vine (Vine had already trodden this turf in the Times, adopting - in response to the question "Should Carla Bruni have worn a bra?" - the view that "Yes, it was a boob"), is complex. Some extracts: "I don't think Sarah Brown would not wear a bra" and "It depends what kind of bosoms you have".

On the same day, the Daily Mail published a series of photos on its website of Bruni emerging from a car to vote in France's local elections. It was as if the camera had been pressed against her face - you can see, cruelly, every pore, follicle and squidge of make-up. Beneath the photo, the Mail offers its analysis:

“The 42-year-old model and singer had applied a heavy layer of make-up, but her eyes looked tired and her hair lifeless. Internet allegations said that Miss Bruni was involved with a musician while the 55-year-old president was romancing a politician 15 years his junior."

What a beautiful logic is to be found in those lines: the gentle linking of exhaustion to infidelity, foundation to philandering. And then the validation, the reference to "internet alle­gations". Here are four things you probably already know (but if you don't, you must) about internet allegations. 1) They are entirely spurious. 2) They mean nothing. 3) Their source could be a 12-year-old boy writing on his Facebook page: "I fancy Carla Bruni!!!! LOL!!!!!" 4) In spite of this, quite often they have a strange currency, turn out to be true and become front-page headlines.

In this case, the allegation stemmed from a tweet (a tweet!), which suggested that President Sarkozy was having an affair with his ecology minister, Chantal Jouanno, while Bruni had escaped to Thailand with the singer Benjamin Biolay. Rumours are infectious, and this one spread like the norovirus, with (mostly British) editors regurgitating the allegation. What an opportunity, after all, to get those bra-less breasts back on their pages! And what an opportunity, too, to print for the 48th time the article about the French laughing in the face of fidelity and not giving a damn what their leaders get up to. It is only we Brits, apparently, who care so much about the bedfellows of our power brokers.

I refuse to believe that French people don't like gossip, especially gossip about their president and his wife. That is good gossip, and you have to respect good gossip when you hear it. In this context, "respect" means "share it, and forget it". It's gossip. It also means taking people who claim not to like gossip as ser-iously as the gossip itself - that is to say, not at all. They are the type who feign ignorance of any circulating story (and thus imply superiority). They are the type who say they never watch television, who claim not to have heard of The X Factor, happier, in fact, to read transport policy reports than unsubstantiated tales about the sexual escapades of people with power or money. Don't believe a word they say.

Oddly, of the two versions of the story, Woman's Hour's is the more irritating. It's like the supposed gossip-hater. Look, they say, we're turning Carla Bruni not wearing a bra into a feminist debate. We mention the "internet allegations" in passing, so capitalising on the gossip without dirtying our mitts. Clever. At least the Mail makes no bones about it. There is no attempt to disguise its intentions. Where the Mail goes wrong is in overextending the gossip, wringing it out beyond its disposable limits.

Amid all the hullabaloo, Sarkozy and Bruni are dismissive. Questioned about the matter at a Downing Street press conference in London on 12 March, Sarkozy said: "You must know very little about what a president of the republic actually has to do all day. I certainly don't have any time to deal with these ridiculous rumours, not even half a fraction of a second."

He went on to berate the journalist for wasting his question on such a pointless subject, in the process occupying so many halves of fractions of seconds that I imagine the republic was floundering by the end of his tirade, so long had he abandoned its needs.

Bruni has kept quiet ever since 11 March, when Sky News showed an interview in which she said: "I guess marriage should be for ever, but who knows what happens?" As a statement, it couldn't be emptier, but her words, inevitably, fuelled another round of speculation. At a time when most of the English-speaking press are basing a story on a tweet and the musings of a handful of hungry blogs, it was the equivalent of showing the interviewer a slide-show of her Thailand holiday photos. (Bruni and Biolay, say, cavorting on a beach and brandishing a sign saying: "Fooled you this time, Sarko!")

Maybe it's impossible for gossip to be harmless and forgettable. In the case of Bruni and Sarkozy, the rumours will probably rumble on until they finally do have affairs (thereby back-substantiating all the stories, much to the journalists' collective relief) and be tweeted into submission until any sense of what is true, or any intrinsic gossip value, has been so thinned that the tale limps into remission. And we'll all be the poorer for that.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times