NEW YORK — With his fingers firmly entwined with those of his smiling wife, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a splash Monday even before he opened his mouth for a no-holds-barred speech at Columbia University.
Amid bloggers' speculation about strains in their marriage, Sarkozy and ex-supermodel Carla Bruni-Sarkozy made every effort to appear the happy couple, walking closely together and clasping hands as they mounted a staircase into an auditorium packed with students, faculty and other spectators.
The French first lady at times threatened to upstage her husband, who scolded his American hosts.
Sarkozy is in hot water at home. His poll ratings are at record lows of around 30 percent, and there are widening cracks in his conservative party. In New York, though, he basked in the rapt attention of hundreds of Columbia students and even jettisoned a prepared speech.
"Speeches kill off creativity," he said. "I'm going to speak from the heart."
And he did.
"Welcome to the club of states who don't turn their back on the sick and the poor," Sarkozy said, referring to the U.S. health care overhaul signed by President Barack Obama last week.
He also called on the United States to champion firm regulations of financial systems, from tax havens to hedge funds.
Despite the strident words, the mood was celebratory — and the French couple held the spotlight, with more than 100 members of the media focusing on her every move.
Sarkozy and the first lady will join the Obamas for a private dinner in the White House today.