When Ségolène came to stay

The woman bidding to become the first female president of France has a secret past - she once worked as an au pair in Dublin. All can be revealed thanks to some detective work by John Lichfield

A long-forgotten episode in the life of Ségolène Royal, the leading French presidential contender, can be revealed today. At the age of 18, she was a successful and popular au pair in Dublin.

Mme Royal, 53, does not mention her brief Irish stay in her autobiography. Until contacted by The Independent, her host family had not realised that the pretty, warm-hearted French girl who stayed with them in the summer of 1971 was also the accomplished politician who may become France's first woman president next year.

When I called and explained the link, Graziella Schuster (née Roche), who was eight years old in 1971, looked up an old photograph album. She found a charming picture of what could only be the teenage Ségolène Royal, sitting at a table with herself and her two brothers, aged seven and five, in the kitchen of the Roche family in Orwell Road, Rathgar, Dublin.

"I had no idea that it could be the same person," said Mrs Schuster, 43. "Only two or three weeks ago I was watching something about Ségolène Royal on the television news. I said to my husband, 'That's strange. We had an au pair called Ségolène when I was a child'. It did not occur to me for a moment that it could have been her."

Mrs Schuster, who now has two children of her own, remembers the 18-year-old Ségolène, as a "very warm-hearted girl, great fun. She was a big success. We had had other French au pairs and, quite honestly, we didn't like them much. They didn't seem very interested in us. But Ségolène took the time to play with us, especially me as the only girl in the family."

"She would cook with me and draw with me. I also remember that my brother John was mad about butterflies and we would spend hours with Ségolène chasing butterflies and bumblebees around our garden with nets."

The Independent was put on the trail of Madame Royal's long-lost Irish connection by a teenage friend of the Socialist candidate. In the summer of 1969, Sheena Beale, now a Dublin solicitor, was sent to Villers-sur-Mer on the northern coast of Normandy. Then aged 16, she did not hit it off with the 15-year-old daughter in her host family. She did, however, become great friends with the 16-year-old girl in the holiday home next door - Marie-Ségolène Royal.

"We spent the whole summer together, swimming and playing tennis, talking about boys and our future. We both wanted to be lawyers," Ms Beale said. "She was a strikingly beautiful girl, with long, dark hair. I thought that she looked like Sophia Loren. She was always great fun to be with but a very focused girl, very determined. I never imagined that she would go into politics. I can't remember ever talking about politics with her. But it does not surprise me at all that she has gone so far."

After that summer, the two teenage girls corresponded. In 1971, Marie-Ségolène - as she still was then - told Sheena that she was coming to Dublin to work as an au pair for a family called the Roches in Rathgar. Unfortunately, Sheena was herself out of the country that summer. She put Ségolène in contact with her family and friends.

How could we find the Roche family after 35 years? Would they remember Ségolène? Had they realised that their former au pair was now making headlines all over the world? It so happens that my wife is from Dublin. The Irish capital is a great city but a very small place. It turned out to be even smaller than I realised.

When my parents-in-law, Tom and Maeve St John married, Tom's best man was called Jim Roche. He lived later in Orwell Road, Rathgar. His wife, Renate, was German.

"It has to be them," said my wife, Margaret. And so it was.

Jim Roche, a successful businessman who owned pharmacies, among other ventures, died in 1981. His wife remarried. She is now Renate Webster, 67, living in County Kildare.

"Ségolène?" she said. "Now, I have no recollection of a Ségolène. Did she have blonde hair then? No? To be honest, we had so many au pairs, and I had so much trauma in my life soon after that, with my husband's death, that I really cannot remember. My daughter, Graziella, will remember."

And so she did. She remembered Ségolène well. So did her brother, John Roche, who says that he has "nothing but fond memories" of the French girl who chased butterflies with him in the summer of 1971.

Biographies of Ségolène Royal - none of which mention her time as an au pair - suggest that she dropped the "Marie" prefix from her name (too old-fashioned, too Catholic) when she went to the staff college of the French political elite, the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA) in 1978. Graziella Schuster recalls that her beloved au pair was already calling herself plain Ségolène seven years earlier.

Soon after her Dublin sojourn, Ségolène Royal was confronted with a great trauma in her own life. Her father, Jacques Royal - an autocratic, retired artillery colonel - quarrelled with her mother, who left the family home. The younger children followed their mother. Colonel Royal refused to provide funds for the family, at first, and the Royal brothers and sisters lived in some penury.

Eventually, it was down to Ségolène Royal, as a law student, to bring a successful maintenance case against her father on her mother's behalf in 1972, the year after her Dublin stay.

After studying law in Lorraine, near the family home, Ségolène was given a scholarship in 1976 to another of the training schools of the French elite: Sciences Po, the Paris school of political science, which has Jacques Chirac amongst its past pupils.

The former Dublin au pair went on to ENA where she was in the same class as Dominique de Villepin, now the centre-right Prime Minister, and François Hollande, leader of the Parti Socialiste. M. Hollande has also been, for 25 years, Mme Royal's unmarried (by her choice) partner. They have four children.

In France, Mme Royal has a reputation for great surface charm and warmth but an underlying, authoritarian steel and coldness. How do her former Irish friends and young charges remember her?

"She had a terrific sense of humour and a great sense of fun," said Sheena Beale.

"There was never a dull moment when you were with Marie-Ségolène. But you did have a sense that here was a girl who was very focused and knew where she was going."

Mrs Schuster said: "The Ségolène I remember was a very warm-hearted person, a very kind person, with bags of energy and patience. After the other French au pairs we had had, she was a breath of fresh air."

Mme Royal, the politician and would-be stateswoman, is also rather shy about speaking in English. How good was her English as a teenager? "Very good, better than my French," says Ms Beale. "Not too bad," recalls Mrs Schuster. "But it definitely got better while she was in Dublin. At the end, I remember being able to converse with her quite well."

The other revelation about the Ségolène of 1971 is just how elegant and chic she looks in the Roche family photograph. When Mme Royal first emerged in French politics in the early 1980s, she had a rather geeky, schoolmistressy image, wearing large spectacles and bright red coats. She has since remodelled herself as a strikingly elegant woman. It appears, from the Roche photo album, that this is not what the French call a "re-looking" so much as a rediscovery of the "real" Ségolène of her teens. Rather like Hillary Clinton, it seems that Ségolène Royal adopted a frumpish look in order to be taken more seriously as a woman politician in the notoriously macho political culture of France.

As the first woman to be chosen as presidential candidate by a major French political party, Mme Royal is now taken very seriously indeed. In the latest polls, she is neck-and-neck with the likely centre-right candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, to emerge triumphant in the second round of the elections on 6 May next year.

"Even before I realised that she was our Ségolène, I admired her greatly," Mrs Schuster said. "I admire any woman who can make her way in such a tough world. I can only wish her every good chance next year."

Before they were famous

Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, BRAZILIAN PRESIDENT

The newly re-elected leader could hardly have come from more humble origins. At the age of 12, Lula da Silva was forced to abandon full-time education and work as a shoe-shine boy in order to provide for his struggling parents and their eight other children. After his family moved to Sao Paulo, Lula held down a number of factory jobs, including working in a car plant where he lost a finger on one of the steel presses.

Ho Chi Minh, FORMER NORTH VIETNAM LEADER

Although regarded in later life as one of the greatest anti-colonialist leaders, a young Ho Chi Minh took full advantage of France's strategic relationship with Vietnam and boarded a steamship to Marseilles working as a cabin boy and chef to pay his way. In 1913, the future Communist leader settled in Crouch End, London, and began working in the kitchens of the Carlton Hotel in Haymarket. Ho Chi Minh even claimed he trained as a pastry chef under the guidance of the legendary Auguste Escoffier.

Tony Blair, PRIME MINISTER

During his student days in the early 1970s, Mr Blair worked as a waiter in Paris. When he addressed the French national assembly soon after his first election victory in 1997, he recalled that the other waiters had told him to put his tips in a common kitty to be shared out at the week's end. He soon discovered, he said, that he was the only waiter putting money into the box. "This was my first experience of socialism," he said.

Jacques Chirac, FRENCH PRESIDENT

When the French president was 21 years old, he was sent to the United States to learn English. He spent a summer at Harvard and, at the weekends, worked as a "soda jerk", or ice-cream man and soft drinks salesman, in a Howard Johnson's restaurant in Boston. One of his proudest possessions, he occasionally tells friends, is a certificate, signed by Howard Johnson himself, stating that "Mr J. Chirac proved himself to be a first class soda-jerk".

Gerhard Schröder, FORMER GERMAN CHANCELLOR

The young Schröder was brought up by his mother, a cleaning lady, in a tiny apartment on a farm near Hanover after his father was killed during the Second World War. In order to improve a diet that consisted of boiled carrots and swedes, he left school early and took a job in an ironmonger's store where he fetched screws and nails for farmers.

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