Philippe Wojazer/AP
French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy

Nude Photo Launches New Battle by French First Couple to Protect Their Image

December 15, 2008 01:34 PM
by Isabel Cowles
Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's wife, is suing clothing manufacturer Pardon for printing her nude image on shopping bags without her permission.

French First Lady Files Suit over Shopping Bags

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, has filed a lawsuit against the clothing company Pardon, which has manufactured and produced 10,000 shopping bags adorned with her nude image. The image used was a photo taken in 1993, when Bruni was still working as a model.

The bags feature a topless Bruni covering her private parts with her hands; below, a caption in French reads, “My guy should have bought Pardon!”

Bruni’s lawyer, Thierry Herzog, said that use of the image constitutes theft of his client’s image: he wants the remaining bags removed from shelves and destroyed. Peter Mertes, founder of Pardon, argued that Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy cannot claim exclusive rights to the image, noting, “you find photos of her everywhere.”

Pardon has been selling the bag on the French island of Réunion for 3 euros or giving it away to shoppers who spend more than 5 euros. The company planned to sell the bags in mainland France before Christmas. Pardon has a history of marketing outré items: last year it angered French church leaders by selling G-strings bearing images of the Virgin Mary.

The court is set to hear the case today.

Sarkozys make efforts to protect image

Both the Sarkozys been involved with previous suits to protect their images from public use.

In February of this year, Sarkozy and Bruni won a lawsuit against the Irish airline Ryanair, which used their photograph in an advertisement.

More recently, Nicolas Sarkozy won a symbolic euro in a case he brought against company K&B, which manufactured voodoo dolls of the French President. The BBC reported that a lower court dismissed a ban on the doll, noting that it was, “within the authorised limits of free expression and the right to humour.”

An appeals court judge determined that “spearing the doll ... constitutes an offence to the dignity of Mr. Sarkozy,” and ordered that the dolls be labeled with warnings that they are offensive to the president. However, he also refused to ban the sale of the dolls.

During the case, attorney Thierry Herzog argued that Sarkozy should have “exclusive and absolute rights” over his own image and that the voodoo doll might “provoke violence” against the president.

According to the BBC, the case marked Mr. Sarkozy’s sixth legal action since his election.

Opinion and Analysis: Are the Sarkozy lawsuits worthwhile?

Legal humorist and attorney Kevin Underhill considers the claim that Sarkozy’s image on a voodoo doll might provoke violence against him: “I think the real threat might be to Sarkozy’s tough-guy image, if he has to send his lawyer out to say he is afraid somebody might stick him with a pin.”

Adam Sage of the London Times argues that as the Sarkozys failed to win punitive damages in their suit against Ryanair, it seems unlikely that the courts would support the couple’s efforts to stop the media from using their photographs without permission.

Blogger Andrew Keen agrees with Sage; he argues that it’s impossible to uphold Herzog’s assertion that Sarkozy has exclusive and absolute rights to his own image in “this digital day and age.” If the claim gained support by the courts, “Sarah Palin could sue Tina Fey for becoming the real Sarah Palin … It might even mean that it would become illegal to take people’s photograph without their permission.”

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