Ségolène Royal: the power of difference

Patrice de Beer
20 November 2006

Since General Charles de Gaulle became president in January 1959, France has lived under a "monarchical republic" where the head of state is all-powerful, keeping the upper hand on his prime minister and on parliament. Now, by May 2007, the French could launch themselves into a new political era with a "Royal republic".

The radical departure will arrive if Ségolène Royal, candidate of the Parti Socialiste (PS) is elected president in the two-round election on 22 April and 6 May, against a centre-right candidate likely to be current interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy. A signal of the seriousness of her challenge is her resounding victory in the PS primary on 16 November 2006, where she received 60.7% of the votes of the party's 218, 771 members; a clear lead over her rivals and party stalwarts, self-styled social democrat Dominique Strauss-Kahn (20.8%), and former economically orthodox prime minister turned anti-globalisation leftist Laurent Fabius (18.5%).

The arrival of "Ségo" as head of state would be a transformational moment on a personal as well as a political level: the first woman (in a country long known for macho politics) ever to reach this exalted position, and the first not to be married (her partner, with whom she has four children, is the PS's first secretary, François Hollande). Moreover, the breakthrough would follow Parisians' election in March 2001 of their first openly gay mayor, Bertrand Delanoë.

But the novelty extends more widely. Behind the glamorous media image of a charming woman courting voters with a smile, with whatever tactical advantages Ségo's femininity could gain during the five-month-long campaign to succeed Jacques Chirac, her ascendancy reveals the fact that France is going through a sea-change which goes much deeper than election calculations. If what makes Ségolène Royal run is (as with any other politician) ego and ambition, her style - in the broadest sense of the word - has revolutionised the small world of French politics.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde.

Among Patrice de Beer's articles in openDemocracy:

"France's incendiary crisis"
(September 2005)

"The Schröder-Merkel clash spills across the Rhine"
(October 2005)

"France's political sclerosis"
(October 2005)

"Paris in flames: the limits of repression"
(November 2005)

"France's enarchy"
(November 2005)

"Child's play at the CIA"
(January 2006)

"France's immigration myths"
(February 2006)

"Law and disorder in France"
(March 2006)

"Ukraine's inspiring boredom"
(April 2006)

"France's crisis after crisis"
(April 2006)

"The Ségolène phenomenon"
(May 2006)

"France and Europe: the democratic deficit exposed"
(June 2006)

"Zidane's farewell, France's hangover"
(July 2006)

"France and Lebanon: diplomacy of tragedy"
(August 2006)

"France in Lebanon: the strength of hesitation"
(August 2006)

"Indigènes: enlarging France's history" (October 2006)

A woman on her own terms

True, only time and the rigours of campaigning will clarify the ratio between substance and appearance in Ségolène Royal's political make-up. Will this tough woman - a steel rod in a stylish white dress, of whom some of her socialist enemies even said that if "the devil wears Prada, the she-devil wears [her Parisian dressmaker] Paule Ka" - survive until May 2007? The sketchy platform she was content to propose to secure the PS nomination may need to be elaborated, but a particular quality of her performance so far is noteworthy: she has been a "Teflon candidate", one on whom criticism fails to stick, and indeed often backfires on her rivals.

Her new approach to politics, and voters, has dramatically shown that the traditional emperors of politics - the "elephants", as they are called in the PS - have no clothes. Within a few months she demonstrated how obsolete were these rival male politicians, how far from the regular citizen's everyday problems and how disconnected their lofty speeches and promises from the lives and experiences of millions of voters (see "The Ségolène phenomenon", 17 May 2006).

Almost at once, men who were used to pontificating on radio, television or in newspapers appeared pompous and passé. A cartoon on the popular cable TV channel Canal+ shows Ségo as a white, smiling storm wiping out all her rivals from the screen. She talks "the basics, stupid!": about helping housewives back to work, school problems, street safety. She listens to people and promises to help them write the story they want onto the public agenda, deliberately shunning ideological battles or philosophical niceties as if they were from another time.

Ségolène Royal went further in party-policy terms: daring to contravene the "line" in questioning the implementation of the controversial thirty-five-hour working week, and in advocating a fair but firm law-and-order policy which could send hooligans and school truants to centres run by the military. She also uttered the anathema in French politics: suggesting that there is some good in Tony Blair's policies. Her outraged rivals promised this sacrilege would destroy her. It didn't.

This different language appears to be what people want in a society where 60% of young people fear that their lives will be worse than their parents, where people have stopped believing in and even listening to politicians drafted from a small, incestuous, Parisian elite, whom they feel have lost touch with the real world.

As Laurent Joffrin, former editor of the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur (and soon to take over the ailing daily Libération), explains in his Histoire de la gauche caviar (History of the Caviar Left): these bobos (bohemian bourgeois) have all but forgotten about the people. Meanwhile, her probable opponent Nicolas Sarkozy seems only to know how to boss the people around in the name of security, order and controlling immigration.

The charge-sheet of Ségolène Royal's opponents is long, but curiously unpersuasive when put to the test. Ségo has no ideas of her own, follows trends and opinion polls, doesn't play by the rules? No problem, she doesn't care, it just reinforces her image of being different. In any case, her "participatory democracy" seems to have blown away all the old certainties and clichés of politics.

Ségo has never been a cabinet member, nor even a member of the PS's central committee, and thus has none of the expected national experience? No problem, it only helps to forget that she graduated from the elite's Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA) like so many politicians.

Paris gave her her worst score in the PS vote? No problem, it only serves to show that she is not like the others, no prisoner of parisianisme, but rather close to the vast majority of people who live outside of the capital. This is exemplified in her capture of the Poitou-Charente region of west-central France from the right - in the figure of prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, no less - in 2004.

She talks with a high-pitched tone, like a mother or a schoolteacher? No problem, as people can understand better her slow, repetitive, plain speech. Maybe she is not the brightest person around, but she represents a different way of talking to people and of conducting a new kind of politics, a breath of fresh air. And she talks like a normal woman, not like a woman wanting to talk like a man.

Ségo has even turned the fact of being a woman in a man's world into an asset. Politicians - i.e. males - having failed to deliver, what is wrong (for female as well as male voters) in voting for a woman? Sexist jokes about her have only increased her popularity, like the one attributed to Fabius, who is said to have asked when she announced her candidacy: "But who is going to take care of the kids?"

And, according to the present minister of defence, Michèle Alliot-Marie, a close ally of Chirac and one of Sarkozy's bitterest foes, fighting against a female opponent "may be more complicated for men. Some of them will have to change their style, and it will be for the better".

Looking, learning, adapting

Ségolène Royal's rising curve is also why, since the beginning of 2006, the PS's membership has increased by half. Most of the new members have registered to support her and what she represents: the only chance they see for the left to defeat "Sarko" and exorcise the trauma of April 2002 when socialist candidate Lionel Jospin led such a disastrous campaign that he was overtaken in qualifying for the second round by the extreme-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen.

In forgetting this massive feeling among the left that they had been victims of their leaders' divisions, Royal's rivals dug their own grave. This phenomenon might prove fatal too in 2007, since the extreme left is so divided between communists, three rival Trotskyite parties, anti-globalisation movements, greens ... some of whom would prefer to have Sarkozy in the Elysée palace rather than the "wrong" candidate from the left.

Ségo, long underestimated by her party rivals, has been smart enough to outfox them. Now, some members of Sarkozy's Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) even fear that she is trying to do the same with him. She has already appropriated two of his key slogans: "law and order" (demonstrating that it can also be a campaign hit for the left), and "rupture" with the past (embodying a break from Chirac's twelve years in power even greater than Sarkozy's own; after all, for the last five years he has been the overactive number two of Chirac's government). All this at a time the president and his friends are doing all they can to derail the candidacy of Sarkozy, a man Chirac hates more than he does Royal.

Finally, it is worth noting that the Parti Socialiste, the most unreconstructed of Europe's mainstream socialist parties - the one most opposed to globalisation and to seriously reforming the traditional social safety-net - has chosen a candidate who has adopted a strategy owing a lot to that of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair: triangulation, pragmatism, keeping closely in touch with public opinion and with social issues as they are lived on the ground. Here also, French politics and the French republic are being challenged by the Royal phenomenon.

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