'My man is really cool, we met when I was 40 and he was 52... I'm quite good friends with his previous wives'
Ahead of Carla Bruni's debut London gig this weekend, France's former First Lady tells Craig McLean about the politics of hot pants, taking on Trump and why Brexit breaks her heart
Where to start in my encounter with the greatest living Italian-French woman and model-turned-singer-turned-presidential First Lady? Maybe with the two armed plainclothes police who emerge from the night-time shadows on a Parisian side street, establishing my credentials before I can ring the bell on the heavy wooden doors permitting entrance chez Carla Bruni et Nicolas Sarkozy. Or perhaps with the box of luxury chocolates proffered by the former premier.
Sarkozy, sixth President of the fifth French Republic (2007-2012), shuffles into his wife's study, statesmanlike and charismatic despite wearing his dressing gown. The 62-year-old only began studying English after losing power, so I pre-emptively apologise for my pronounced Scottish accent. He waves it away and tells me he was friends with Gordon Brown.
"Truthfully, I didn't understand everything he said! But he's an intellectual, he's not a doer."
Mais non. Let's start with the remarkable Mme Bruni-Sarkozy. The singer-songwriter is 50 this month, and has just released her fifth album, French Touch, a very classy, very eclectic, very French collection of English-language covers (Depeche Mode's Enjoy The Silence, Abba's The Winner Takes It All, AC/DC's Highway To Hell).
Born into industrial wealth in Turin, and married to Sarkozy for 10 years come February 2 (they wed three months after meeting), Bruni has been making music for two decades since quitting a modelling career that soared in the 'super"' era.
During September's Milan Fashion Week, she reunited for a photocall with her peers and fellow catwalk legends Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell and Helena Christensen. She admits to a slight feeling of nerves.
"We spent 10 minutes behind the curtain before and were all laughing and crying. And I turned to one of the girls and said: 'I don't know if it's emotion or hot flush …' She replied (deadpan), 'It's hot flush'" Bruni booms her throaty laugh.
Bruni is no-holds-barred, expressive, candid, relaxed and hilarious. Dressed in an effortlessly sleek rollneck jumper, she pops us both a Corona and gives a tour of her stunning home, tells me how little it is to rent, reveals she's never been sexually harassed ("It's almost offending! What am I, fat?" she jokes, blackly), proudly shows off her husband's autographed letter collection (a Chagall here, a Freud there), and talks me through the mood board pinned above her desk.
There's the couple with Nelson Mandela. A still from a Chanel shoot done, illicitly, in a religious Roman landmark. A Liberation cover marking the 10th anniversary of the death of Serge Gainsbourg ("who's still smoking, just like me!" Bruni says, puffing on a Virginia Slim). Snaps of her children, Aurélien (16, her son with philosophy professor Raphaël Enthoven) and Giulia, (six, her daughter with Sarkozy; he also has three sons from two previous marriages).
"You'll probably meet Giulia too," Bruni says, "because she doesn't think I'm a songwriter. She thinks I'm just mum.
"I had her when I was 44," she shouts, making an alarmed face, "because I was pregnant too late."
There's even a pic of Bruni and Mick Jagger, a former boyfriend (see also Eric Clapton). She playfully hides it by sliding another photograph in front. But fret not, she smiles, there's no jealousy. "My man is really cool. We met when I was 40 and he was 52. I'm quite good friends with his previous wives. The first one, Marie, is adorable, and she's very close to my daughter - we call her Mimi. And my daughter said to her: 'But Mimi, aren't you jealous of my mummy?'" she laughs, tickled. "Mimi, of course, she isn't - they've been divorced 20 years. She's okay with me."
Someone who's very much not a former paramour is Donald Trump. He claimed in the early Nineties that he and Bruni had dated. Bruni being Bruni directly challenged him on this proto-fake news.
"I called him. 'What happened? I saw you once for lunch, and now we're dating? That's not true.' We had lunch once, with his girlfriend, Marla, in New York," she clarifies.
"So he said to me, 'Oh, probably some paparazzi …' 'No one saw us! We had lunch at the Trump Tower and no one knew… It's coming from you!'
"And he said, 'Don't complain so much, it's gonna bring you fame.'"
Anyway, she had her revenge shortly afterwards, setting the record straight in a Vanity Fair interview. Then "he sent me a little note, 'How can you say that? I'm gonna sue you'. I sent him a little note - 'Go ahead!'"
Of considerably more appeal is another statesman, the thrusting young French president, Emmanuel Macron, and his wife, Brigitte. This year's new inhabitants of the Elysée Palace also have a significant age gap, albeit in the opposite direction and albeit doubled - the First Lady is 24 years the President's senior - and are similarly dashing.
"They're quite nice, and they're very nice to us. A change is a change," she shrugs. Brigitte, she adds, "is cool … They invited us for dinner, and (beforehand) I went to this Azzedine Alaïa show during couture (week).
"It was 38 degrees and at the show he closes the door, he puts on the lights, and we're under a glass roof. I'm sitting in the front row next to Nicolas Ghesquière and I'm like, 'My God, I'm gonna faint!' The show was amazing - Naomi was in it - I was like, 'Wah!'
"But then I'm coming out of the show like I'm coming out of a steam room. And I have to go to the Elysée! So in the car I tried to refresh myself. I arrive at the Elysée and I'm like this" - Bruni mimes ventilating her armpits and bosom.
What does she make of Brigitte Macron's style?
"She's always very modern. Me, I was coming from showbusiness," she leans in conspiratorially, "so I got very classic. I thought there's no point in me wearing hot pants for a state visit! I tried to calm it down … because all these pictures of me came out when I married him. Oh my God!" she hoots.
"Not only the naked ones, although when I came to England, every paper had me naked. When I came down the steps from the flight …" she shudders.
"But when we got married people got into complete shock. It was the first time someone from showbusiness married someone who was president.
"But Brigitte Macron is not the same. She was a teacher - which is a fantastic job (but) it doesn't make you public… So she's okay with being modern. But me, I was way too modern! So I got really classic, put gloves on, stayed still …"
She enjoyed her five years in the Elysée. "It was so interesting, but I don't really miss it. It's done."
But even if Bruni is happy to leave the world of politics and return to her music, Brexit must vex her, surely?
"I'm sorry about it, because I thought England was into Europe." London is, I point out. She nods, and carries on. "To me, the United Kingdom out of Europe is just so sad. It's like if Italy was out of Europe … and then what, Catalonia? Corsica? And there's this guy that wants to take the north of Italy out," tuts this Turin-born citizen of two EU countries.
It's especially sad because she's a big fan of London, having been going there since her earliest days as a teenage model. "But I have an orientation problem with London - I never know where I am! But I love it."
Remarkably, her appearance this weekend at Islington's Union Chapel is her first capital concert. "Because my songs are so French, (before now) I thought there would be no public," she explains.
"Even though London is the second French city - 800,000 French people there, can you believe it?" Bruni exclaims.
Two nights later, I see Carla Bruni perform at Le Trianon theatre in Montmartre. Before a note is struck there's a standing ovation and a sea of camera phones - for the other rock star in the house, Sarkozy, sitting a few seats along from me.
If tonight she brings to the Union Chapel stage just a handful of her hilarious anecdotes the show will be a knock-out. Vive, of course, la France.
French Touch (Decca) is out now. Carla Bruni plays Union Chapel, Islington tonight