The Ségolène phenomenon

Patrice de Beer
16 May 2006

In these times of gloom and doom in France, where pessimism – called here "declinism" – prevails left, right and centre, only two personalities still seem to appeal to voters: Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister and head of the governing Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) party, and Ségolène Royal, socialist regional leader and member of parliament.

No other politician – except, maybe, the benign centrist François Bayrou – can expect any sympathy from a populace weary of a succession of scandals. The most recent of these is the Clearstream affair, in which both prime minister and president (Dominique de Villepin and Jacques Chirac) appear to have been involved in a plot to destabilise their colleague (but also rival) Sarkozy. No wonder the French are disgusted with the murky world of politics.

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

Also by Patrice de Beer 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 Clearstream saga has exposed the faultlines within the government of Dominique de Villepin, a process only temporarily assuaged by the failure of a parliamentary vote of censure against the prime minister on 17 May (in which Bayrou and ten allies voted with the socialist opposition). Nicolas Sarkozy, who has decided to remain in post despite being the target of a smear apparently orchestrated by his government partners, is cultivating his rightwing image by pushing (Blair-style) for more law-and-order and anti-immigration measures.

But, since the beginning of 2006, his status as the most popular – or least unpopular – French politician has been challenged by a woman. A woman, in the macho world of French politics, aiming at the highest position of the state; it sounds almost unthinkable, but "Ségolène" has, against all the odds, managed to reverse the trend – just by being different.

What makes Ségolène run?

Ségolène Royal, an elegant yet steely woman of 52 years, is the long-term partner (not wife) of the leader of France's Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party / PS), François Hollande, with whom she has four children. She takes pride in not being an "elephant" – one of the all-male pachydermic pack of leaders (which, by a twist almost too delicious for words, includes Hollande himself) fighting to the finish for the opportunity to represent the PS in the 2007 presidential election, there to earn the privilege of being thrashed by "Sarko".

So, what makes Ségolène run? Ambition, of course, but the same could be said of any other politician. There is also cool political calculation behind the charm. She appears to have studied the Clinton (Bill, then Hillary) way of achieving power: by moving one's party to the centre to make it appealing to middle-of-the-road voters. She has learned too from Tony Blair's 1997 electoral triumph when Labour voters, deprived of power for so long, were ready to vote for anyone with a chance of kicking out the Conservatives.

She had the guts to say that she admired some of Blair's policies – not something very popular in France today – and looked favourably on the PS's sister parties in power elsewhere in Europe. She also reminded her leftist friends that the 45% of voters (including herself) who voted "yes" in the May 2005 referendum on the European constitution were only a narrow minority that deserved to be listened to. She further understands that the self-destructive war of the elephants is likely to increase even further the dreadful image of politics among voters and destroy the socialists' hope of victory in 2007.

Royal understands that elections are usually won from the centre-ground, not by pandering to the radical left as her rivals in the PS seem to think; this is especially true at a time when, according to a new poll, 37% of voters consider themselves neither from the left or from the right, as against 24% who define themselves as belonging to the left and 17% from the right (these figures exclude the extremes on each side).

The first draft of the first chapter of her new cyber-book Désirs d'avenir – also the name of her popular website – begins by reminding readers of survey results on public trust: only 1% of voters fully trust politicians (22% partially trust them), and 61% don't trust their MPs. The primary reason given is that politicians are considered too remote from citizens' own world and juggle with lofty ideas rather than care for their daily problems.

Royal's strategy of avoiding "major" issues (political, diplomatic or economic) and emphasising social ones (good education, the return of moral values, more safety in schools and on the street, the importance to family stability of having a job) makes sense in this light. These are concerns that are at the forefront of people's everyday preoccupations; these are the issues on which she seeks to invite citizens' views and develop her policies accordingly, rather than lecturing them the traditional way.

So far, Ségolène has avoided engaging in intellectually risky dialectical debate with party stalwarts like former premier Lionel Jospin and former finance ministers Laurent Fabius and Dominique Strauss-Kahn; she has also kept aloof from party bickering, stressing only that the official party platform for the election will also be hers.

Fabius has already paid the price for daring to ask who would take care of the children if she stood for the presidency. He should have known better: a large part of Royal's appeal lies precisely in her being a mother, knowing how to raise children and being as familiar with daily chores as with political issues.

Also on recent political crises in France in openDemocracy:

Alana Lentin, "The intifada of the banlieues"
(November 2005)

Henri Astier, "France's revolt against change"
(March 2006)

Henri Astier, "In praise of French direct democracy"
(April 2006)

The inside-outsider

All this explains why, within only a few months, Ségolène has managed to achieve a level of public popularity equal to Sarkozy, while modifying the solid opposition of the PS hierarchy (a consensus view that, naturally enough, did not include her consort, Hollande). Her increased status is reflected in the fact that as many as 50% of Socialist Party members now support her; Lionel Jospin is the only other candidate with even a double-digit following.

She has gained the support of a third of the presidents of France's regions (all but two of them socialists) and of several parliamentarians. She has also become the darling of the media, including "people" magazines the left usually despises. Despite predictions from her rivals that her popularity would fade as quickly as a fashion craze, she remains at a steady 50% or so in the opinion polls.

It also seems that many of the 40,000 new members who joined the PS via the internet in recent months (paying a €20 membership-fee) – thus gaining the right to vote on the party's presidential candidate in November – are attracted by her. A comment on Royal's website was revealing: "I am personally close to the far left, but I'll vote for you because I want the left to win."

But Ségolène's rise raises another political mystery: why has this daughter of an arch-conservative military and graduate of the elite École Nationale d'Administration (ENA) – like Hollande, Jospin, Fabius, Chirac, and Villepin – managed to avoid being tarnished by the devastating image the enarques have acquired, and to maintain her appearance of being different from other candidates? After all, she should be one of them.

Royal, however, has succeeded in every major political task she has been set: keeping clear of party feuds, managing a faultless career as a technical minister, and even (in the 2004 elections) in defeating the then prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin (2002-05), in his own fiefdom of Poitou-Charente. Today, Ségolène the web candidate believes that the time is now ripe for a woman to lead France out of a murky era and a defeatist mood.

How she will survive another year of campaigning, and whether her programme will prove to be as convincing as her packaging is attractive, only time will tell. These are not macho considerations: the same could in principle be asked about the mute Jospin, or Strauss-Kahn and Fabius (who as finance minister each pursued liberal policies, but who are now pushing for a leftist platform).

The coming political year in France is full of uncertainties. Tough, Ségolène Royal clearly is. But the biggest question of all is yet to be put to the test: is she tough enough to meet the challenge from a ruthless Nicolas Sarkozy?

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