Could France’s answer to Blair become the country’s first female president?

It has been a remarkable year for Marie-Ségolène Royal – the woman some are tipping to become France’s first-ever female president, says Andrew Hussey in The Observer. Just a year ago, Royal, a 52-year-old mother of four, was a low-key politician operating in the shadow of her partner, fellow socialist, Francois Hollande.

Quelle transformation! A couple of controversial speeches and a fetching turquoise bikini later, “Ségo-mania” is sweeping through France with such force that Royal is being talked up as the only person capable of beating centre-right maverick Nicolas Sarkozy next year. Will she prove France’s long-awaited Marianne, “the bare-breasted… eternal symbol for radical change to all French people”? Or is she, as her detractors claim, “as empty and doomed” as Marie Antoinette?

When Royal first hinted of her ambitions, the group of old-timer socialists popularly known as “the elephants” trumpeted their scorn. “Who will look after the children?” sneered former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius. Others pointed to her lack of heavy¬weight experience: Royal’s only ministry jobs have been in “soft” departments, such as education and the family.

“But the more she was dismissed, the more the public took to her,” says The Economist. At first, her strategy was to say as little as possible, avoid policy questions, and watch her poll numbers climb. But this summer, she set out to smash several socialist shibboleths, speaking out against the 35-hour week, championing the economic liberalism of “Blairisme” and even advocating boot-camps for urban rioters.

Critics snarl at the inconsistencies of “Ségolisme” – but in the current environment, “coherence matters less than distinctiveness”. Ségolisme cuts across France’s old left/right divides; her approach seems fresh and innovative to an electorate “tired of the stale grey political class”.
Royal is a rare “insider-outsider” who managed “to get her ticket punched” in all the right stages of life, “without ever aspiring to join the old boys’ club”, says The New York Times. Born in 1953 in Dakar, Senegal, she grew up in a military family dominated by her father, Jacques Royal, a retired general of extreme right-wing opinions and misogynist tendencies. General Royal had eight offspring, but told a colleague: “I have five children and three daughters.”

At home, says The Independent, the female “non-children” were not allowed to speak at table. Royal has inherited his rigour. “I see a goal, I organise myself… I evaluate, I achieve it,” she says. “It’s very military.” She won a scholarship to the finishing school of the French elite, École Nationale d’Administration, where she met Hollande, her partner of 25 years (they haven’t married by Royal’s choice). 

It’s not hard to gauge Ségolène’s popular appeal, says The Observer. She’s “the ideal mix of sexiness and intelligence to which French middle-aged women aspire” – and a born fighter to boot. But there’s a long way to go. Royal might be riding high in the polls now, but she must prove long term that she can “translate her dazzling popularity into enduring credibility”.

Royal’s campaign “may yet prove to be the overblown soufflé which her socialist rivals and right-wing enemies have been confidently expecting and desperately praying for”, concludes The Independent. But don’t count on it.


Ségo and Sarko: France’s new breed of celebrity politician

“Ségo” and “Sarko” have come to personify France’s new breed of celebrity politician, says the International Herald Tribune. Both have a history of inviting the media into their private lives – hitherto political heresy in France; both promise “une rupture” with the old thinking; and both are emotionally savvy.

Royal has perfected the art of forging an “I-feel-your-pain” connection with the electorate and encourages people to send in ideas to her web site, “This may just be a marketing exercise but it’s a clever one,” says The Independent. “Thousands of people not normally active in politics have come to believe they are part of her campaign”.
Royal certainly has momentum on her side. After decades of malaise, there are hopeful signs of renewal in France, says Management Today. With the economy growing at its fastest in years, the “declinologist” doomsayers who predicted France’s terminal decline are on the back foot.

There’s a pronounced whiff of optimism in the air, which Royal is tapping into and “a spreading sense that change is inevitable for le modèle social Français”. Of course, we shouldn’t underestimate the “deep attachment to the social model” in France, says the FT.

Yet recent social unrest has had the effect of opening eyes. So much so that Jacques Marseille, professor of economic history at the Sorbonne and one of France’s gloomiest commentators, claims to be feeling “less and less pessimistic”. The nihilistic revolts of the past year, he suggests, might be the darkness before dawn. “The battle is under way and perhaps a victory is close.”