Andreas Whittam Smith: France and Britain share a taste for fresh faces

Both Mr Cameron and Mme Royal prosper by arguing against the grain of their parties
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Ségolène Royal is forging ahead in French politics in the same way as David Cameron is here. In the race to secure nomination as the Socialist Party's candidate for the forthcoming presidential contest, Mme Royal is quickly widening the gap between herself and the established leadership, the so-called "elephants", men like Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Jack Lang, Lionel Jospin, Laurent Fabius.

In an opinion poll published on Friday, she was the preferred candidate of 43 per cent of French voters, whereas the rest of the field was clustered around the 10 per cent mark. Indeed Mme Royal's chances of defeating Nicolas Sarkozy, the probable right-wing candidate in next year's election, are about the same as the likelihood of Mr Cameron ejecting a Labour prime minister from 10 Downing Street at his first attempt - conceivable, not impossible.

Making allowances for the different ways in which the British and French class systems work, the two politicians have similar backgrounds. There is no exact equivalent in France to Mr Cameron's Eton and Oxford education. But occupying the same position in French life as Oxbridge are the grandes écoles, higher education establishments outside the mainstream of the public universities. They are specialised, small and highly selective. They train France's elites. Mme Royal, the daughter of a colonel in the artillery, was a student at the best-known of these, ENA (l'Ecole nationale d'administration).

Both Mr Cameron and Mme Royal prosper by advancing propositions that rub against the grain of their parties. Each produced perfect examples last week. Mr Cameron urged the Conservatives to abandon "knee-jerk" hostility to the public sector and asserted that private companies did not have a monopoly of good service. It must be at least 30 years since the Tories have heard such sentiments from their party leader. Mr Cameron even went so far as to say that banks, insurance companies and utilities had lessons to learn from the public sector about how to treat people. And for good measure, he accused ministers of "scapegoating" civil servants to evade responsibility for their policy failings. As Labour is in favour of a strong public sector, this criticism is hard for them to answer.

Mme Royal's target was the 35-hour week and flexible working brought in by the last Socialist government. This reduction in working time is her colleagues' pride and joy. However she argues that the new policy, while welcome in itself, has benefited management more than workers. Company executives can enjoy their extra leisure without any penalty whereas workers have found that the new rules mean that they must come in on Saturdays.

Flexible working is particularly hard for women with poor qualifications, argues Mme Royal, for they must work when they should be with their families. Thus Mme Royal accepts the socialist objective while contriving to show that her rivals, the elephants, have no notion how the great advance actually affects ordinary people.

Just as surprising to his audience was Mr Cameron's recent speech on well-being. "It's time we admitted that there's more to life than money, and it's time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB: General Well-Being. Improving our society's sense of well-being is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times."

This runs smack bang against an emphasis upon self-help, which is part of the party's inheritance. It also goes in the opposite direction to New Labour's policy of exalting paid work as a worthwhile activity in itself with its drive to get people away from various kinds of state benefit and back into employment.

Mme Royal hasn't said anything like this, but she is equally tuned into the mood of the times. Her website is what she calls a participative forum. She believes that when a problem arises or a desire for improvement is expressed, then ordinary people should be considered as "legitimate experts". In a world which is at once more and more complex but better and better informed, everybody holds a "part of the truth". The site encourages debate, then attempts a synthesis of what has been expressed, and finally publishes those propositions which Mme Royal judges could be realisable. Build your own party platform.

What is it, then, that Mr Cameron, Conservative, and Mme Royal, Socialist, have in common? This is how they both appear. Absolutely fresh, up-to-the-minute and contemporary while their rivals mouth the old formulas. Possessed of an ability to surprise in a welcome fashion. And blessed with self-confidence without arrogance. When Prime Minister Cameron meets Mme la Presidente Royal one day, I expect them to get on well.