Landslide victory for `French Thatcher'

MICHELE ALLIOT-MARIE, 53, was elected head of France's neo-Gaullist RPR Party by a landslide at the weekend, to become the first woman to lead a major political party.

She is not seen as a deep political thinker, has no significant track record in government and triumphed through the lack of credible opposition. But it would be foolish to underestimate her - similar slighting remarks were made about Margaret Thatcher when she took over the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1975.

"Michele is not the Danube of political thought, but she does have balls," a colleague told the newspaper Liberation.

It remains to be seen whether Ms Alliot-Marie - nickname "Mam" - will become the Iron Lady of French politics. She already represents a refreshing change from stultifying tradition. She is not a "woman politician", but a politician who happens to be a woman, in a party and a country where women have mostly been kept on the margins of political life.

She has also broken themould of French politics in that she is not, like many French party leaders, a self-appointed, and self-important, political baron in search of an electorate. She has been democratically chosen by the grass roots - against the wishes of the party's founder, President Jacques Chirac, and against the expectations of the Paris political and media establishment.

As leader of the Gaullists, she stands in a line which comes down from Charles de Gaulle, through Georges Pompidou, Jacques Chirac, Edouard Balladur and Alain Juppe - presidents or prime ministers all.

If President Chirac is re-elected in 2002, Ms Alliot-Marie could become Prime Minister. Her election as head of the RPR is, however, a stinging rebuff to the President from his supporters. Mr Chirac had unofficially but clearly favoured the choice of Jean-Paul Delevoye, a weak and malleable provincial politician.

Ms Alliot-Marie took 62.7 per cent of the vote in the second round of the election on Saturday. She is mayor of the town of St Jean-de-Luz in the Pyrenees, and is a former junior minister, with doctorates in law and politics. She married her law professor at 24 but divorced him 25 years later, after he refused to have children. She never remarried but plunged into busy and, until now, mostly anonymous political activity. In the Juppe government from 1995 to 1997, she held the position of sports minister.

She appealed to RPR members because she was a straight talker, but also because she was neither Mr Chirac's candidate nor associated with any of the party's many war-ring factions.

After her victory, Ms Alliot-Marie immediately promised to unite the party: the pro and anti-Europeans, the pro-market modernisers and the pro-state traditionalists, the Catholic conservatives, and the blue-collar reactionaries. She also plans to streamline the bureaucracy of the party and make it more responsive to its members.

So far so good for Mr Chirac. But she has also promised to take a much more aggressive line with the Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, with whom Mr Chirac has been forced to "co-habit" since 1997. This will delight party activists but is less good news for the President. His high rating in the opinion polls is dependent on the boom of the last two years and widespread public approval of the political "truce" which has coincided with it.

Mr Chirac acknowledged yesterday that Ms Alliot-Marie had made political history. He said: "I am sure that with her new team she will be able to put all her energy into the Gaullist movement in the service of the people of France."

His congratulations were a marked departure from his earlier attitude to Ms Alliot-Marie. In 1995 she gained notoriety for trying to keep a foot in both the Chirac and Balladur camps when the two RPR heavyweights were slugging it out for the presidential nomination. Mr Chirac dismissed her as "poor little Michele" after she tried to reconcile him and Mr Balladur and he kept her out of government after taking power.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
News
i100
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown, daughter of the late singer Whitney Houston, poses at the premiere of
people
News
people
News
The frequency with which we lie and our ability to get away with it both increase to young adulthood then decline with age, possibly because of changes that occur in the brain
scienceRoger Dobson knows the true story, from Pinocchio to Pollard
Voices
The male menopause: those affected can suffer hot flushes, night sweats, joint pain, low libido, depression and an increase in body fat, among other symptoms
voicesSo the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Life and Style
health
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head