Ségolène Royal: La Présidente?

Ségolène Royal has generated enthusiasm in a country which appeared to have lost faith in politics BY JOHN LICHFIELD
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Picture the Royal family going to church in a small town in Lorraine in the 1960s. The father, Jacques Royal, a retired general, with extreme right-wing opinions and authoritarian and misogynist tendencies, strides ahead. His wife, Hélène, follows meekly behind. The children are obliged to follow, in single file and age order: Marie-Odette, Marie-Nicole, Gérard, Marie-Ségolène, Antoine, Paul, Henry and Sigisbert.

General Royal had eight off-spring but told a colleague: "I have five children and three daughters." At home, the female non-children were not allowed to speak at the table. Eventually, the ultra-Catholic General Royal quarrelled with his wife and, in effect, abandoned the family. His youngest and cleverest daughter, Marie-Ségolène never spoke to him again. She admitted later, however, that she owed a great deal to her father. At the age of 10, while suffering in silence at the table, Marie-Ségolène decided that she would show "papa" that a determined woman could do anything that a man could do.

In May of next year, Ségolène Royal - long since shorn of her Marie prefix - may get her ultimate revenge on papa. The daughter of the man who thought that Charles de Gaulle was a dangerous leftist may become the first ever Présidente de la République - and a Socialist présidente at that.

According to the most recent polls, Mme Royal, 53 next month, is now boulevards ahead of all other Socialist candidates in the race to win the "nomination" of the main opposition party for the two round election next April and May. In recent days she has also opened a commanding lead over the probable centre-right contender, the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.

French public opinion is volatile. In the August before the last election in 2002, the Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, was also well ahead in the polls. The following April, he failed even to reach the second round run-off between the two top candidates.

Ségolène Royal's still undeclared campaign may yet prove to be the overblown soufflé which her socialist rivals, and right-wing enemies, have been confidently expecting and then desperately praying for.

Don't count on it. With an odd mixture of plain-speaking and evasion, of conservatism and radicalism, of internet tricksiness and old fashioned barnstorming, of feminism and chic, Mme Royal has defied all the misogynist cat-calling which greeted the declaration that she might run last September. In the past 11 months, she has managed to achieve something which no mainstream, French politician has achieved since her mentor François Mitterrand in the early 1980s.

She has generated popular enthusiasm, even fervour, in a country that appeared to have lost its faith in established political parties. At a Socialist festival at a village in Burgundy last weekend, there was a mini-riot as 4,000 people surged forward to "see Ségolène" - not necessarily to hear her, just to see her.

Mme Royal has a relatively small role, by her choice, at the Socialist party conference, or summer school, in La Rochelle this weekend. There is no doubt who the delegates really want to see - "Ségo". Ségolène (which is pronounced "sago", like the pudding, and "Len", like Hutton) has become what the French call un people, in other words, a star. Whether she can, as she implies, reform a partially failing France, while preserving the best of France, is another question.

Ségolène Royal was born on 22 September 1953 in Dakar, Senegal, during one of her father's military postings. After he split with her mother, the family was left in considerable penury. That makes the seemingly bourgeoise Ségolène one of the few left-wing politicians in France to have known suffering in her own early life. She reached two of the finishing schools of the French elite - Sciences Po and the Ecole nationale d'administration (ENA) - through brilliance and scholarships, not family connections and financial support. At ENA, from 1978, her fellow pupils included Dominique de Villepin, now the centre-right prime minister, and François Hollande, future first secretary of the Parti Socialiste and her future "husband".

Friends recall that at ENA she was the unimpressive junior partner, the girlfriend of François, a young man destined for great things. The couple have lived together for 25 years. They have four children aged between 14 and 23. They have never married, by Ségolène's choice.

Both she and M. Hollande entered politics in the classic French way, not at the bottom, but at the top, working on the staff of Mitterrand's Elysée palace. They "parachuted" into provincial constituencies later. In 1992, Mme Royal became the first French cabinet minister to give birth while in office. At that time, she had a rather geeky image, with dreary clothes, unmissable teeth and large glasses.

Now the glasses have gone; the clothes are understated but elegant; the teeth have been corrected. At 52, Ségolène Royal is, or has become, a very handsome woman. In France, that counts. There was enormous prurient interest and genuine admiration when snatched photographs of Ségolène looking stunning in a turquoise bikini appeared in two French celebrity magazines earlier this month. The French may, or may not, be ready for a woman as leader (the first since a queen regent in the 16th century). France being France, the French - both men and women - would certainly not be ready for a woman leader who was inelegant or physically unattractive.

Clearly, looks alone are not enough. Ségolène Royal has brilliantly grasped the essentials of political campaigning in the early 21st century. Like Bill Clinton, like Tony Blair, like Nicolas Sarkozy, up to a point, she has perfected the art of the "I-feel-your-pain", direct, personal connection with the electorate. Her skilful pre-campaign (almost an American primary campaign) has played a sonata on a series of "values" buttons.

"Ségolisme" (the word "Royalisme" would still sound odd in France) cuts across the normal left and right divide in French politics. She is tough on social issues such as crime. She speaks eloquently, and with personal authority, on issues of family and education and health. She calls for greater "agility" in the French economy and workplace. She also wants to reduce the "precariousness" of employment in a globalising age. How she would square that circle is never made clear.

"Ségolisme" also means bringing political decision-making "closer to the people": something that she calls a "democratic revolution". The details are, once again, vague. Mme Royal's internet site - www. desirsdavenir.org - encourages people to send in ideas which will be incorporated in her final political manual. This may be just a marketing exercise but it is a clever one. Thousands of peopl not normally active in politics have come to believe that they are part of her campaign.

Mme Royal has managed to position herself as a "new face" and an outsider, a woman of the people. And yet Ségolène Royal is not an outsider. She has been, variously, minister of the environment, of education and of families and children. She has been a senior figure in the Parti Socialiste for 14 years. She has been president of the region of Poitou-Charente in western France for two years (with very mixed reviews). For all her talk of "participative democracy", she has a reputation for being a bit of a bully, rather like her dad.

Mme Royal says that she is interested in the best of what is achieved abroad. She caused a stink in the Parti Socialiste by saying in January that the Tony Blair approach in Britain was not all bad. A senior New Labour politician once sat next to Mme Royal at a party dinner. "She never asked me one question about Blair or Britain," the politician recalled. "I had the impression of a very cold, self-absorbed woman."

What her "husband", François Hollande, thinks of her meteoric rise is one of the best-kept secrets in France. As leader of the party, he had legitimate aspirations to run for president himself. According to one version, he and Ségolène decided that she should run in his place after he was badly wounded by the rejection of the EU constitution by Socialist voters in May last year. Did he expect her campaign to fizzle out, allowing him to re-emerge as the strongest candidate?

Instead, Mme Royal - partly skilfully and by design, partly by luck - has achieved a form of political ju-jitsu. The strength of the other Socialist hopefuls - Lionel Jospin, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, M. Hollande - has become their weakness. They are the experienced and obvious candidates but France is sick of politics-as-usual. After 25 years of high unemployment, and a series of calamities from suburban riots to student unrest, the country wants change. It is also terrified of change.

Ségolène's greatest weakness has become her greatest strength. She is different, because she is not a man and because she talks in a more direct, less cliché-infested language. At the same time, she does not threaten the kind of abrupt change which Nicolas Sarkozy offers.

Ségolène Royal has proved herself a great political campaigner. Grass-roots Socialists are desperate to defeat M. Sarkozy. The polls suggest that only Mme Royal can do so. The likelihood is that that Socialist party members will choose her on 16 November as the main centre left candidate for the elections next spring.

France, however, has fallen for great campaigners before. Mitterrand was an inspiring candidate but ultimately a cynical and disappointing president. Jacques Chirac was an indefatigable candidate, by fair means and foul, but a disastrous president.

What France needs is not another impressive candidate, whether in trousers, skirt, or bikini. What France needs is a courageous leader. The next seven months of merciless campaigning may - or may not - reveal whether General Royal's daughter is that person.

A Life in Brief

BORN: 22 September 1953, Dakar, Senegal.

FAMILY: Four children, Thomas, Clémence, Julien, Flora, aged 14 to 23 from unmarried partnership with François Hollande, first secretary of the Parti Socialiste.

EDUCATION: Degree in economics, University of Nancy; diploma, Institut d'Etudes Politiques (Sciences-Po), Paris; graduate, Ecole nationale d'adminstration.

CAREER: 1982-8, technical adviser to presidency of the republic; 1992-3 Minister of the Environment; 1997-2001 Minister for Schools; 2001-2002 Minister for families and children. April 2004 to present: President of the region of Poitou-Charente.

SHE SAYS: "In 2007, we want to bring to fruition this desire for a future, for change, which I feel rising in the country."

THEY SAY: "This so-called 'desire for a future' which Mme Royal claims to represent is just a form of words, with nothing concrete behind it." Bernard Accoyer, leader of the centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire in the National Assembly.