French president Sarkozy hints at marriage plans with Carla Bruni

( AFP ) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday said his romance with Carla Bruni was "serious" and hinted that he was ready to marry the Italian ex-model and pop singer.

"There is a strong chance that you will learn about it once it's already been done," Sarkozy told a press conference when asked about reports that he was planning to marry Bruni next month.

"It is serious," he said of the romance that became public in December when photographs of the couple visiting the Disneyland theme park outside Paris were published in newspapers and magazines.

"Carla and I have decided not to lie," Sarkozy said, adding he wanted to "break with a hateful tradition of hypocrisy" -- a clear allusion to former president Francois Mitterrand's illegitimate daughter, whose existence was kept secret for years.

Sarkozy, 52, and Bruni, 39 -- a rich heiress whose past conquests include rock stars Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton -- have been trailed by a swarm of paparazzi since mid-December.

Three months after he divorced from his second wife Cecilia, Sarkozy was under pressure to comment publicly on his highly-mediatised romance, amid signs it could be hurting his approval ratings.

Several polls since the New Year have shown Sarkozy slip three to four points, while one showed a seven-point plunge in his confidence rating to 48 percent -- the lowest point since his election last May.

The media blitz surrounding the Sarkozy-Bruni couple trailed them to Egypt and Jordan, where Sarkozy was photographed last weekend carrying Bruni's young son Aurelien on his shoulders.

Bruni may also accompany Sarkozy on an official trip to India late this month, according to local media.

Left-wing politicians have lined up to accuse the president of neglecting the day-to-day concerns of the public for his romance with the model-turned-singer.

But Education Minister Xavier Darcos defended Sarkozy's love affair and shot back at critics who say the president has overexposed his private life.

"I believe that a happy president, and I was about to say a president in love, is a president that has without a doubt more of a bounce in his step and will be more energetic and efficient in fulfilling his duties," said Darcos in an interview to LCI television.

"The French people will have to get used to modernity," he said. "There is nothing more natural than to show ourselves as we are, to be transparent, open as you would expect a modern couple to be," he said.

In October, Sarkozy became the first French president to divorce while in office when he ended his stormy 11-year marriage to Cecilia, with whom he has a 10-year-old son.

He also has two sons, Pierre, 22, and Jean, 21, from a previous marriage to Marie-Dominique Culioli, whose uncle was mayor of the well-heeled Paris suburb of Neuilly -- a job Sarkozy went on to hold for close to 20 years.

Born into a wealthy Turin industrial family, Bruni made a second fortune in modelling and music, becoming one of the world's best paid models at the height of her catwalk career.

She had a surprise hit with the release of her first pop album "Quelqu'un M'a Dit" (Someone Told Me) in 2004.

Observers have pointed out that with her long legs, high cheekbones and chestnut-brown hair, Bruni bears a striking resemblance to Mr Sarkozy's former wife Cecilia.

"Men are often drawn to the same type of butterfly," Sarkozy's biographer, Catherine Nay, has been quoted as saying.

But Bruni, who has a six-year-old son with the philosopher Raphael Enthoven, places herself firmly on the political left, making her an unlikely match for the right-wing reformer Sarkozy.

Bruni has also been quoted saying she does not believe in monogamy.

"I am faithful... to myself! Monogamy bores me terribly... I am monogamous from time to time but I prefer polygamy and polyandry," for a woman to have several partners, Bruni told Le Figaro Madame magazine in February last year.

Dubbed "the Bling-Bling president" by the leftwing press, the president's opponents say he is obsessed with money and celebrity, and accuse him of trivialising politics by parading his romance in the media.

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