France drew its breath yesterday, contemplating a political future that would have seemed unthinkable a year ago: a Madame la Présidente of the Republic.
Ségolène Royal, decried by many male colleagues as a miscast lightweight - a woman wandering on to a battlefield fit for men only - obliterated the male opposition in Thursday's Socialist party primary.
With almost 61 per cent support among members of France's main opposition party, Mme Royal, 53, must now be considered a formidable contender to replace Jacques Chirac in the Elysée Palace next May.
Her troubles are, however, only just beginning. Figures on the left of the Socialist party, and leaders of the mosaic of parties further left, made it clear yesterday that they had no wish to work with, or support, Mme Royal. After a skilfully vague campaign, combining social conservatism and people-first government activism, Mme Royal is regarded on the wider left - among Communists, greens, Trotskyists and anti-globalists - as a creation of "the media" and a liberal in disguise.
Between now and the first round of the election proper on 22 April, she must prevent the kind of splintering of the wider left-wing vote that defeated the Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin in the first round in 2003.
At a press conference yesterday, Mme Royal adopted a Kennedyesque - and rather un- Socialist - tone, appealing for a new idealism and a new patriotism to "write a new page in French history". "I launch an appeal today to all the people of France, men and women, to come together, mobilise yourselves, ask what you can do for your country," Mme Royal said.
"The world has changed. France has changed. Politics must therefore change. Let us not be scared of new ideas. Let us dig them out of the daily lives of French people, out of their difficulties and their suffering, out of their extraordinary triumphs."
All ideological minutiae apart, the idea that voters should ask what they "can do for their country", rather than present a list of demands to their government, runs contrary to the standard tone of left-wing discourse in France. Mme Royal's critics - on left and right - will no doubt also point out that after 14 months on the campaign trail she is still begging her voters to come up with some "new ideas".
Her campaign has been a mixture of broad appeals to "values" and somewhat parochial plans for specific "people" issues, from health care, to education, to trades union reform.
As the centre-left newspaper Le Monde said yesterday: "Mme Royal has won the Socialist battle. It is now time for her to construct a project for the future of France."
In Thursday's vote among the 218,000 members of the Parti Socialiste, Mme Royal won in every local branch but three. She took 60.6 per cent of the vote nationwide. The former finance minister, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, 57, who campaigned as a reformist social democrat, scored 20.8 per cent. The former prime minister, Laurent Fabius, who took a harder left, Eurosceptic and anti-American line, got 18.5 per cent.
Mme Royal's campaign, and her victory, was a bundle of paradoxes. Mme Royal is the daughter of a conservative and misogynist artillery general. She has been in left-wing politics all her adult life, starting as an adviser to the Socialist President François Mitterrand in her twenties. She has been a minister three times and is the unmarried partner, with four children, of the head of the Socialist Party, Francois Hollande. Nonetheless, she ran her campaign mostly outside the party's rules and official manifesto. Her site on the internet - Desirsdavenir.org - urged supporters to send in their own ideas, giving them the impression that they were running their own campaign.
What Mme Royal grasped was that, after 23 years of centrist muddle by right and left, France has lost patience with mainstream politics and politicians. Despite her Socialist pedigree, she managed to create an image for herself as a kind of centrist outsider (not unlike the first Bill Clinton campaign in the US in 1992).
M. Fabius and M. Strauss-Kahn, more experienced politicians, found that the usual presidential strengths - maleness, gravitas, all the years served in top government jobs - became handicaps rather than advantages.
Although Mme Royal will now become an easy target for the hard left - both inside and outside the Socialist party - she can console herself with a simple fact. There is likely to be a similar self-demolition derby on the centre-right.
The Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, looks certain to win the nomination of the ruling party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) in January. However, President Jacques Chirac, 73, and his remaining supporters, including the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, detest their colleague.
They are expected to do all they can to damage M. Sarkozy's campaign, including possibly putting up a "spoiling" second candidate from the governing party in the first round.Reuse content