He is the darling of the French tabloids. Long before the earthquake he was campaigning for aid for Haiti. He is part of France’s most unusual family business — which almost got him blown up by neo-Nazis. He is a member of the French, New York and California Bars, and also served in the Israeli army. He works for the French Prime Minister as an adviser and he is a friend of President Sarkozy. Not just that, he used to live with the President’s wife, Carla.
Arno Klarsfeld, a tall, spare man of 43, grew up as part of the family “firm” of Nazi-hunters. His father, Serge, and mother, Beate, have both been highly decorated for bringing Germans and French collaborators to justice. Arno himself has received a medal from President Sarkozy.
That part of the family activities now seems to be over, though they consider their current activities to be the most important part of their work, “finding the victims rather than the perpetrators”. Serge Klarsfeld has published details of all the 80,000 Jews deported from France by the Nazis. His wife, a daughter of a Wehrmacht soldier who joined her husband’s activities because she believed in catching Nazis, is helping him “by giving new life to these victims. We are not just collecting names, but details of their lives.”
Arno himself has, over the past few months, been lobbying the French Prime Minister, François Fillon, to get France and America together to help Haiti. “Both their countries have occupied and taken from Haiti,” he says. “We owe it to them.”
His love affair with the girl who is now Mme Sarkozy was a welcome break from the serious problems of life — which included narrowly escaping death as a child when neo-Nazis blew up the car he and his mother had just got out of.
It was 15 years ago that he and Carla Bruni, then a model and sometime singer-songwriter, set up home together in an apartment in Paris. They had met on a transatlantic Concorde flight — their relationship lasted two years. “It was a wonderful time because she was and is a wonderful girl,” he says, sitting at the polished mahogany table in the headquarters of the Klarsfeld Foundation in Paris, which doubles as his home.
He discusses the work of the family firm, emphasising that, “what we were seeking was justice, not retribution, nemesis”. He is happy to go on talking about Nazi-hunting, but the question of Bruni keeps cropping up in the conversation. “She could have done many things in her life — and she has,” he says. “She is gifted in so many ways. She is highly literate, gifted in sports. She is reliable — and we are still good friends.We loved each other very much.” So why did they break up? “Life changes. We were very young, still in our 20s when we met.”
Not that it was President Sarkozy who beat him to her heart. There were others in both their lives when they split up. “Of course, there are other girls, yes.” But he says he is also in love with his two cats, Heaven and Malka (Hebrew for “queen”), which he rescued from a street in Jerusalem. “I’ve had my girl period, now I have my cat period.”
Arno feels that Bruni “is doing a great job” as France’s First Lady. “I told her that one day she would become President of Europe. Then, when Sarkozy became President of the EU, I phoned her to say: ‘So you see, I was right. You did become President of Europe.’”
Does that mean that he thinks she is the power behind the presidential throne? “I don’t know about that. All I know is that she is very nice and we still get on very well.”
It is proved every time that Arno is invited, as he often is, to functions at the Elysée Palace, sometimes with his parents, who got to know Sarkozy when he was interior minister.
As a lawyer, Arno represented his parents’ causes in the Paris courts, most famously when Klaus Barbie was put on trial for crimes against humanity in 1987. Barbie was the head of the Gestapo in Lyon at the time that Serge’s father, also called Arno Klarsfeld, was deported. He died in Auschwitz.
Arno’s activities — both legal and romantic — get huge coverage in the French press. There is also a fair amount of interest in his relationship with Nicolas Sarkozy who he sees “from time to time” professionally, as well as when they go cycling together. At the last parliamentary election, he was persuaded (some say by Sarkozy himself, although he won’t confirm it) to stand for the French Parliament. He narrowly lost. “It was not a terrible defeat. But it was for a seat in the east of Paris, which has gone to the left very much,” he says.
Had he won, he would have been in Sarkozy’s cabinet, some believe. “I was asked why I supported Sarkozy,” he says. “I think he is doing the best job he can. He is good for our relationship with America.” And there is another factor: “I supported him because he was better for Israel than others.”
Israel is one of Arno’s most passionate causes. He went there after the start of the second intifada in 2000 and stayed for four years, “because I felt that the representation given by the media was not right. I felt compelled to go there and I became an Israeli. And I wanted to do the army service. I did that in a border patrol near Bethlehem. I did not do that against the Palestinians, but in favour of Israel.” He retains his Israeli citizenship. “I am an Israeli, but not religiously Jewish.” Indeed, as the son of a Protestant mother, he is not considered a Jew at all in Orthodox law. “But I did have a non-denominational barmitzvah when I was in Israel,” he says.
Although the serious Nazi-hunting is over, even now if the Klarsfelds come across a new lead, Arno will be on hand to prosecute, when he isn’t looking after his cats, that is. “The cats will always remain even when the girls come back,” he says.