Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy
02/28/2008 at 11:00 AM EST
Stepping far away from the glamour and pomp of a state visit, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy took her initial steps on the international scene as France's First Lady in a South African township on Thursday.
"This is my first visit," Bruni-Sarkozy, accompanying her new husband
, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, told journalists. "For the moment, I am listening to what people tell me, that is how I see my role."
The visit to Khayelitsha Township's Women's Group highlighted a French-initiative business enterprise. To show its appreciation, the group presented Bruni-Sarkozy with a woven jute handbag just like the ones it exports to the U.S.
Bruni-Sarkozy's presence on the three-day African visit is seen as an unofficial warm-up to her first official participation in the pomp and ceremony of a state visit to Great Britain next month.
On Thursday, Bruni-Sarkozy also spent 45 minutes privately with the wife of an opposition leader who disappeared earlier this month, sources tell PEOPLE. Sarkozy, meanwhile, met Chad's President Idriss Deby,
The couple later dined together with French soldiers garrisoned in the country.
Bruni-Sarkozy is also expected to be much in evidence Friday in Johannesburg, when she and her husband pay a courtesy call on one of her often-mentioned personal heroes – former South African President Nelson Mandela.