September 20, 2010
Posted: 2353 GMT

The French first lady is one of the most talked about women in the world. Her past as a supermodel, her reputation as a man-eater and now, reincarnated as the demure third wife of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, she has become the subject of intense global media fascination.

We waited for Mrs Sarkozy at the French United Nations mission in New York City. She appeared on the threshold of the interview room – on time – in a black Audrey Hepburn style dress, walked briskly toward me and, wide-eyed, introduced herself.

“Hello, I’m Carla!”

Mr and Mrs Sarkozy are in town on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. The French president gave a speech and Carla Bruni spent some time speaking in her role as ambassador to the Global Fund to fight AIDS.

We would speak about her humanitarian work and, of course, bring up the controversy stirred up by two explosive biographies published in France last week. But seconds before sitting down, and to our surprise, she insisted on being interviewed with the Fund’s head, Michel Kazatchkine.

“It either happens with him,” she tells me with a smile, “or it doesn’t happen.”

As our team hurriedly reorganized chairs and lighting to accommodate a second interviewee, Bruni’s mobile phone rings.

“Oui mon amour,” she answers in a velvety voice. “I’m just doing CNN and I’m done.”

I’ve seen images and heard Carla Bruni’s voice for two decades. (Full disclosure: I love her songs, music and lyrics and listen to her albums regularly). So it wasn’t without great curiosity that I prepared for our interview.

Why is the fight against AIDS and malaria dear to her?

“To me, it’s important to do something while I stand by my husband while he’s the president of France,” she tells me, “Little by little I thought maybe I could bring some attention to the work that the Global Fund does.”

And boy does attention follow Carla Bruni wherever she goes.

The two Carla Bruni books have only added to the worldwide interest in the former model.

In “Carla And The Ambitious” (the title makes much more sense in French, to be fair), Carla Bruni allegedly said U.S. First lady Michelle Obama told her White House life was “hell.”

Is it true?

“Of course Michelle Obama never said such a thing,” Bruni answers. “Not one book that has come out about me was authorized. But of course, I live in France and France is a free country where anyone can fantasize and publish it.”

What about those much more damaging allegations in the book that Carla Bruni-Sarkozy used secret French police files to uncover a plot to oust her or to find out who was leaking damaging rumors about her?

“I’m happy to disassociate myself not only form this book but from all books,” she says. Bruni added said she could technically take legal action, but that she considers that an “undemocratic” move and that she never does it “by principle.”

Before the interview, the New York bureau called me to say there was new video of Carla and Nicolas Sarkozy cuddling and hugging on a United Nations escalator.

I asked her about her very public display of affection for her husband, whose popularity in France has plummeted and who’s facing ferocious criticism for his pension reform plans and France’s expulsion of Roma gypsies.

Bruni puts her index finger on her lips, as if to say “Shhh, I’m embarrassed!” but then readily answers:

“We just met! We are brand new spouses. It’s been three years. And of course all this pressure that he has on his shoulders brings us even closer.”

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September 13, 2010
Posted: 1813 GMT

If this summer’s surge in anti-Muslim rhetoric in America has highlighted one thing, it’s that nine years after the horrific events of 9/11, the clear and unequivocal distinction between Islam and Al Qaeda has not been made in this country.

This summer, a vast majority of Americans (more than 70%) said they oppose the building of an Islamic center in lower Manhattan, two blocks from Ground Zero.

And like dominos falling across the country, the New York Islamic center controversy has stirred frenzied anti-Islam: from the opposition of a Mosque expansion in Tennessee to the Islamophobic rants of a Florida preacher who captured the attention of the world by calling for a Koran-burning event on the anniversary of 9/11.

The New York Islamic Center project, Park 51, has become a political hot topic as the country approaches important midterm elections. The U.S. president and the New York mayor have been among those who support the building of the center because, they say, it is within the organizers’ constitutional rights to do so.

But others, including former presidential candidate Senator John McCain, have opposed the project. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said that the Islamic Center was “not about religion, and is clearly an aggressive act that is offensive."

Building the center is legal, they say, but that doesn’t make it right.

And that nuance has been at the crux of the opposition to the project: this isn’t about what is legal, critics say, but what is “right,” what is “sensitive” and what honors the memories of the victims of the 9/11.

In other words, some Muslims in America say that even though they had nothing to do with the attacks, they are somehow complicit with the terrorists simply by virtue of their faith. And they should know better than to practice that faith so close to where thousands of innocents were murdered by a band of lunatics, because that band of lunatics did it all in the name of Islam.

And they say that if almost three quarter of Americans say they don’t want a Mosque a couple of blocks from Ground Zero, it’s that the majority, on some level, equates Islam with terrorism. Perhaps it even means that the majority feels American Muslims’ allegiance is to Islam first and to America second.

This has led to vivid and fascinating debate in America. And some of the most vocal and passionate advocates of warning Americans against the dangers of anti-Muslim bigotry have been non-Muslims.

In his column on Saturday, the New York Times’ Nick Kristof wrote: “This is one of those times that test our values, a bit like the shameful interning of Japanese-Americans during World War II, or the disgraceful refusal to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe.”

But here’s what’s interesting (and rarely discussed): there is debate even among Muslims themselves. Ibrahim Hooper, of the Council on American-Islamic relations told me that the Park 51 controversy was “manufactured” for political gain. CNN host and Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria famously returned an Anti-Defamation League award because of the organization’s opposition to the location of the Islamic Center.

Others, however, including Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic studies at American University, said of the center near Ground Zero, “When wounds are raw, an episode like constructing a house of worship—even one protected by the Constitution, protected by law—becomes like salt in the wounds.”

As for Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Imam behind the Park 51 project, he said last week on CNN that he never would have chosen that location had he known it would provoke controversy.

His major concern now? Not that Muslims (like anyone else) should be allowed to worship freely in America on private land, as is guaranteed by the Constitution, but that moving it will mean that “the headline in the Muslim world will be Islam is under attack in America, this will strengthen the radicals in the Muslim world.”

So there are multiple voices in American Islam (pluralism is good) but not a single message. The end result is that American Muslims themselves come off as ambiguous when asked about their rights in the United States, so perhaps they shouldn’t be surprised that the country is too.

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