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Yeux on France: Who Exactly is Ségolène Royal?

Les Yeux on France: Who Exactly is Ségolène Royal?

Ségolène Royal on the cover of Libération

Photos and Column by Yasmine Ryan

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(AIX-EN-PROVENCE – 25 November 2006) – It has been decided. Ségolène Royal is to be the Socialist candidate for the 2007 presidential election; the first woman in a position to become France’s head of state. On Thursday 16 November, Royal won a landslide victory in the Socialist Party’s American-style primary, beating her two more established competitors. Pre-empting the critics in her first speech last Friday, the media darling said that there was no ‘personal glory’ in the landslide. She pledged to work hard to unite the ‘entire left’ against the centre-right.

Over 80% of France’s 218,771 registered Socialists voted, and 60% gave their support to the perceived outsider, thus giving her a strong mandate. Dominique Strauss-Kahn received 21% of the votes, while former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius was given a mere 19%. Royal failed to return calls to either Strauss-Kahn or Fabius after they both left congratulatory messages the day after her victory.

It is her popularity with the general public and the media that has led to this victory. The Ségolène Royal phenomenon has transformed traditional French politics, particularly within the Socialist Party hierarchy, where she has few friends or allies, leading to the coining of various neologisms.

‘Ségolisme’, ‘royalisme’ or ‘la Ségolie’, terms used mostly by her detractors, describe her trademark political style, centred on populism and concepts such as ‘participatory democracy’ and ‘citizens counsels’. ‘Royalisme’ has been put into practise by the presidential candidate on a regional level in Poiron-Charentes, where she has the presidency. ‘Royalistes’ are her staunch supporters, numerous in number, while ‘ségophobie’ is the intense hostility she provokes in her opponents.

Daughter of a Lieutenant-Colonel, Royal is far from being a conventional Socialist. She admits to never having read Marx, had her children baptised and refers to Tony Blair and Saint Thomas of Aquin. Her idol is Joan of Arc rather than Lenin, Mao or Guevara. In his latest book, Les Prétendants, France’s top political journalist paints a portrait, in brief, of a politically superficial product of clever marketing. Alain Duhamel described her as having ‘a left-wing sensibility, a right-wing personality and centrist ideas’.

In a similar vein, former Minister of Mitterrand’s PTT, Louis Mexandeau, wrote provocatively that ‘Ségolène has the most incredible lack of culture, she is a black hole for knowledge and embodies a crass ignorance worse than Reagan or Bush. It is as if she has never read a single book.’

At odds with the Gaullist tradition, foreign policy is a particular weakness for the Presidential candidate. It is not an area in which she is experienced or knowledgeable and her few pronouncements on international issues tend to be vague and cautious, often truisms. When questioned on Iraq, for one, she has replied variously that she doesn’t have enough information to form an opinion, or that ‘we have an interest in the restabilisation of this country’. In the third televised debate against Fabius and Strauss-Kohn, Royal stumbled over the difference between military and civil nuclear technology in Iran, giving her opponents the chance to show her up.

Also at issue for her critics is the fact that both her and her companion, François Hollande, now occupy top positions within the Socialist Party. Hollande, with whom Royal has had four children, is the party’s President. The couple’s rise through the ranks has been parallel: Royal joined the Socialists in 1978, around the time that she met Hollande during her studies at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration. After graduating, Hollande and Royal assisted in François Mitterrand’s presidential campaign in 1980, supporting Jacques Attali. Attali, something of a mentor to the pair, employed them at the Elysée when Mitterrand became President.

Mitterrand was clearly wary of the problematic of both halves of a couple occupying key positions. When he offered Royal the position of Minister of the Environment in 1992, the relative political novice ventured to ask if her companion couldn’t also become a Minister. The President’s response was ‘I understand. There is a simple solution. He joins the government and you don’t. I don’t want a couple in the government.’ The then 39 year old backed off her request and accepted the post.

The Hollande-Royal relationship is one of free union, each with their own agenda. Marriage appears unlikely. Hollande was even intending to run for the Presidential candidacy, against his partner, but was forced to abandon this plan due to heavy criticism. Laurent Fabius’s unfortunate ‘Who’s going to look after the children?’, addressed to Royal-Hollande couple, is one such example. Jack Lang lashed out in a book that the couple have ‘manipulated the party for their own benefit.’ (Lang, a recent convert to ‘Royalisme’, is currently trying to cancel the publication of the book precisely because of such comments).

Without going too far, Royal’s popular appeal is similar in many ways to that of Princess Diana. Well-dressed and charismatic, Royal also has an air of vulnerability that works very much in her favour. Her support for ‘citizens’ juries to keep tabs on politicians and participatory democracy in general appeal to a population sick of the status quo. Like Diana to the British Royal Family, the French Royal represents a more approachable kind of politician.

Particularly revealing is the first time Royal came into the media spotlight. Back in 1992, the then Minister of the Environment attended the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. When her turn came to take the podium, the Minister abandoned her prepared speech. Eight months pregnant, Royal instead placed her hand on her stomach and gave a moving address on childhood, vigorously applauded by Fidel Castro, amongst others. Shortly after, back in France, Royal gave birth to her daughter, Flora. An hour later Royal was filmed with her baby for the French news. Hollande, who evidently hadn’t been consulted, was disgusted.

Article titled ‘Women in UMP don’t want kitten gloves towards Royal’, Le Monde.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the most likely candidate to represent the centre-right UMP against Royal in next year’s election, has a tough fight ahead of him. Already his team are puzzling over the best strategy to take. Both Sarkozy and Royal represent change to the disenchanted French public, are closer to the popular sentiment and speak beyond the traditional constituencies of their respective parties.

Royal has one advantage over Sarkozy, however, in that she is a woman. And she has a certain feminism in her approach which has already proven successful and added to the perception that she goes against the grain of more traditional politics. Early in the campaign for the Socialist nomination, there were several sexist comments from her competitors. Rivals backed off such tactics quickly once it became evident that they were counterproductive. Given the machismo that is such a major part of Sarkozy’s image, it will be interesting to see how the race for the Presidency plays out.


Yasmine Ryan is a graduate of the University of Auckland, in Political Studies and French language. She is currently completing a Masters degree in International Journalism at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Aix-en-Provence.


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