Sarkozy's big sell-off

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy is a professional. Vanity Fair's September cover story proves it once more. The "first lady fatale", as she's introduced, can do everything: the seductress, languid in pyjamas opposite her husband on a regalian bed; the cavalière, her long booted legs hanging elegantly from a grand siècle banquette; the lady du soir, in a red evening gown on the roof of the presidential palace; the femme fatale in a trenchcoat, alone in the magnificent park at the Elysée palace; and the gamine in jeans and ballerina shoes caressing the keys of a baby grand. Throughout, her demure half-smile conceals an unbending focus on the job of promoting her latest album.

The photographer, Annie Leibovitz, is a professional too. Her compositions show an attention to detail and a commitment to the task: to construct a legend that publicists desperately need the French and the world to believe in. Carla, the new Jackie - although it's not made clear if we're talking Kennedy or Onassis incarnation. Vanity Fair's accompanying profile has 12 sources: two anonymous, her agent, two designers she has modelled for, and seven close friends of President Sarkozy. But perhaps a little traitement de faveur was de rigueur now that Nicolas Sarkozy, for the first time in the history of the Republic, has allowed the Elysée palace to be used for a commercial photoshoot.

The president is the one who is not being professional. Again his advisers have failed to rein him in. Sarkozy should have know better than to put the Elysée palace and France's national symbols up for hire. He may be authorised to live at the Elysée, but he doesn't own it. Sarkozy should have asked his landlords, the French, their permission to use France's political heart as a backdrop to increase his rock-chick wife's CD sales. Imagine Mick Jagger, as a former flame of the Queen's sister, photographed with the crown jewels on his head, half-reclined on the throne at Windsor, with an admiring Queen standing by. All to promote his latest album.

More importantly, what this new and apparently frivolous episode shows is how Sarkozy is little by little privatising democratic power itself. Take the latest scandal: the flamboyant entrepreneur and former politician Bernard Tapie, a close friend of Sarkozy who has been fighting a legal battle against the Crédit Lyonnais bank for more than a decade, finally won his case last month after a tribunal overturned a ruling by the high court. In this singular case, unheard of in France, three privately appointed judges ruled that the state should give the president's friend €285m. Could somebody tell the finance minister, who has just signed the cheque, that the public purse is not her discretionary fund?

Examples of Sarkozy's privatisation of power are plentiful. They go far beyond the economy and public companies - the sell-off of the post office is already under way. There is a more insidious, subterranean process at work: the blurring between private and public realms, the emergence of a political culture in which irreconcilable ingredients are blended into one big counter-democratic smoothie. This new culture seems to have taken the usually savvy French citizens completely off guard.

When Sarkozy announced that he would personally appoint the new head of public television, along with the new director of the public radio networks, there was no outcry. Instead, when his wife gave each of the 38 members of the government her album, dedicated with "1000 kisses", as they left their last weekly brief at the Elysée palace before their holidays, the ministers told journalists: "Go and buy it, it's fantastic."

When national symbols become commodities, ministers courtesans and journalists lackeys, it isn't time to act "as if nothing had happened", as Bruni keeps panting in our ears. It's time to face the music and sing: au revoir democracy, bonjour ancien regime.

Agnès Poirier