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Sarkozy, advisers visit Taj Mahal

- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 27, 2008

AGRA, India — French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited one of the world's greatest monuments to love yesterday, pacing the elegant white marble hallways of the 17th-century Taj Mahal with a group of top advisers.

Left behind, though, was his girlfriend, Carla Bruni.

A small army of Indian security officers cleared the grounds of the monument early yesterday afternoon, just before Mr. Sarkozy's arrival in Agra, 125 miles south of New Delhi.

French officials had left an air of mystery surrounding the visit. Earlier this week, officials indicated he would go to the Taj Mahal, and press speculation ran wild in India and France that Miss Bruni would go with him.

But as Mr. Sarkozy, 52, faced increasing criticism at home for the openness of his relationship with 40-year-old Miss Bruni, she reportedly said she wouldn't go to India because they were not "yet" married. Soon after, the Taj Mahal visit disappeared from Mr. Sarkozy's official schedule — even as Indian officials insisted he would be going.

Still the rumors persisted: They had been secretly married and would announce it at the Taj Mahal, some said; Miss Bruni had chartered a jet and would meet him there, bypassing the diplomatic complexities of the official visit, said others.

But yesterday afternoon she was nowhere to be seen at the white marble monument, built by the Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan in the mid-1600s in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth.

"Unforgettable," Mr. Sarkozy wrote, in French, in the Taj Mahal guest book.

But with Mr. Sarkozy silent on his love life, only displaced tourists were talking openly about the subject.

"It's a pity for him," said Kees Meerten, a Dutch sculptor visiting the Taj Mahal. "It's ridiculous that he couldn't come with his girlfriend."

Mr. Sarkozy and Miss Bruni — a tire-company heiress, model and singer who also has dated Mick Jagger and Donald Trump — reportedly met in November, soon after the president's October divorce from Cecilia, his second wife.

Miss Bruni's non-presence in India was, in some ways, the most talked-about part of Mr. Sarkozy's two-day visit. So far, his trip has been largely low-key, with pledges to increase Indo-French business, military, diplomatic and cultural ties.

Some people, though, had little interest at all — in Mr. Sarkozy or Miss Bruni.

"I couldn't care less about the French president," said Dave West, an American tourist forced to wait outside during Mr. Sarkozy's walk. "Whether or not he brings his mistress, that's his choice."