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.