July 2006

What do Ségolène Royal and Édith Cresson have in common? Both members of François Mitterrand’s circle, they were sent to conquer elected seats in his native region of Poitou-Charentes southwest of Paris-and succeeded. Cresson went on to become France’s first woman prime minister. Fifteen years later, Royal could become the country’s first woman president.

Ségolène-as the French familiarly call the 52-year-old National Assembly deputy and former cabinet minister-was not raised to become a groundbreaking politician and certainly not a Socialist one. Her father, a military man and devout Catholic, was a harsh disciplinarian with his eight children, expecting nothing of his daughters but a destiny as dutiful wives. Feminism became her first political awakening: “Never like my father, never like my mother,” vowed Royal at an early age.

Education was her ticket out of the Lorraine region where she grew up. She studied first at the International University of Political Studies (Sciences-Po) and later at the French National School of Public Administration (ENA). Gradually, Royal shed her provincial reticence and was groomed for high public office.

From obscure adviser to cabinet minister Her talent spotted by Jacques Attali, a close collaborator of François Mitterrand, Royal became a presidential adviser at the age of 27. Her job was to write daily briefings to help the president keep his finger on the pulse of French society. “I was nothing, a little mouse,” she declares humbly in Madame Royal, a 2005 biography (Éditions Jacob-Duvernet).

But she earned the aging president’s respect when, in 1988, she was sent to the Deux-Sèvres département (administrative district) with two weeks to campaign and narrowly won a seat in the National Assembly. Four years later, she was rewarded with the position of Minister of Environment.

The new minister, it soon became obvious, was pregnant. The birth of her daughter became a media event that helped build her image as the woman next door. Royal has four children with her longtime companion, Socialist Party leader François Hollande, sometimes referred to as Monsieur Royal.

Over the next 10 years, Ségolène would hold three more cabinet positions, overseeing matters of education, the family, child welfare and the disabled. Her critics argue that she lacks a broad vision of the world and has never grappled with the essential issues of unemployment, the economy or world affairs. Indeed, the battles she has waged as a member of government consist of opposing daylight saving time, racketeering, hazing practices in school and the treatment of women in advertising. She defended foster children’s right to find their birth mothers; she granted fathers paid leaves of absence when their children are born.

“She is in touch with the state of mind of the French, who at the moment are both antiliberal and antilibertarian,” argues Daniel Bernard, the author of Madame Royal and a journalist at the weekly Marianne. “Five years ago, the issues she defends were considered corny. Today, they are trendy. On the topics of health, education and family, she articulated French people’s fears, much to her credit, when other politicians didn’t give a damn.”

Championing these concerns, Royal, who says she once couldn’t even speak in public, became a media darling. TV immediately fell in love with this photogenic woman who had clear positions and an approachable style. Unlike other politicians, Royal did not limit herself to TV talk shows; over the last 20 years she has appeared on many popular entertainment programs and on the covers of major magazines.

Dress rehearsal for the presidential race Royal’s most recent political coup was her election as president of the Poitou-Charentes regional council in 2004. The outgoing president was none other than then-Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin-Royal trumped his designated successor, a particularly meaningful victory for the Socialist opposition. Recalls a journalist for the regional daily La Nouvelle République, speaking under condition of anonymity, “Everywhere she went, she gave people the feeling that she was listening to them. She is doing the same thing today in the presidential race.”

Two years into her term, it might still be too early to judge Royal on her record. She has geared her efforts toward a few issues concerning the environment, education, youth and women. “She is a professional politician. She once had the [regional] council vote a resolution against genetically modified crops in open fields, even though the council has no authority in the matter,” notes the journalist, who is based in Poitiers, the council’s seat. “She never shrinks from conflict or ruffling her opponents’ feathers. The way she has organized the power structure around her and certain [hastily announced] decisions have been seen as signs of authoritarianism.”

Her biographer offers a harsh take: “It will inevitably become clear that she has not demonstrated her ability to act at the national and regional level,” says Paris-based Daniel Bernard. “As long as she can get by on her image, she’s fine. But looking at her record, things could shift.”

Filling a void on the left “Her main strength is the weakness of her opponents in the Socialist Party, who have not managed to offer voters anything new since the débâcle of the last presidential election,” asserts Bernard. As a result, Royal emerged as a strong Socialist candidate in the fall of 2005 and took the lead in the polls. In one of many surveys published in May, 66 percent of respondents found Royal présidentiable-capable of capturing the presidency-versus 60 percent who thought the same of right-wing Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the likely UMP candidate. They also judged that Royal would do better than Sarkozy at governing serenely, preserving unity among the French and conveying a positive image of France abroad.

A woman of action, Royal has never been strong on formulating political theories. Within the Socialist Party, she is not known as a team player and indeed pointedly distinguishes herself from the party’s old guard. Bernard is convinced that the underlying core of her political convictions is her Catholic upbringing, which would make her an unorthodox Socialist. In his biography, he quotes a fellow Socialist describing Royal as “a left-wing neocon” who craves moral order.

Is France ready to elect a woman president? The French public seems to welcome the idea. The political class might be a different story, with male candidates for the Socialist nomination particularly resistant to the idea. “They are bewildered. They tried to belittle her, to claim she wasn’t up to the job, but their contempt backfired. [Now] they dare not speak against her for fear of strengthening her position,” says Bernard. Royal is known for using her gender to puncture questions. “Would you ask me this question if I were a man?” is a common retort, a catchphrase that has become the trademark of her character on the satirical TV puppet show Les Guignols.

But Bernard’s prediction has already proven wrong, with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, one of the Royal’s most serious contenders for the Socialist nomination, accusing Royal of being more conservative than Sarkozy.As she gears up for the battle of her life, Royal might want to seek the advice of Edith Cresson, whose stint as prime minister was a short one, largely due to hostility and backstabbing from men in her own party. The French presidential hopeful is scheduled to meet with Hillary Clinton, who might have some advice of her own. Imagine a meeting at the White House or the Élysée Palace in a couple of years between heads of state Ségolène Royal and Hillary Clinton. We’d have come a long way, baby.

Isabelle Boucq is looking forward to a presidential campaign with a woman contender.

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