Adam Ash

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

The sexy Presidential campaigner in France closes in on her main rival

Ségolène Royal Battles for French Hearts
Ségolène Royal is fighting to become France's first female president. In doing so she is taking a page from François Mitterrand's book -- the grand master of political theater. She is now almost neck-and-neck with her right-wing opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy.
By Stefan Simons in Paris/Spiegel

Abbé Félicien Chevrier can still see the delicate girl with the dark pigtails standing in front of him. "She was different," he remembers. "Even as a 12-year-old, she got worked up over a discussion of the Bible." Chevrier, now 93, was the parish priest in Chamagne, a village 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of Nancy. He has fond memories of the child: She was an avid reader, he recalls, and she acted in small plays with other children from the village.

On a notepad, Pastor Chevrier has written down, in his slanted handwriting, the character traits of the young Marie-Ségolène: From her mother's side -- intelligence, tact, loyalty and constant self-control. From the father's side -- courage, tenacity, determinaton and, even in the face of opposition, upstanding and straightforward."

The child grew up to become Marie-Ségolène Royal, now a candidate for the French presidency with the April 22 elections just over two weeks away. The once-lanky girl from the countryside surrounding the Vosges Mountains now wants to become the most powerful woman in France and the first female president in the history of her country. Not long ago, Royal seemed close to achieving her goal. She was even nicknamed the "Madonna of opinion polls" -- before reality caught up to her. Now, though, she is caught in a four-way fight -- and has been put on the defensive by increasingly vocal critics who claim she lacks competence.

At her campaign appearances, such as a recent one in Marseilles, pulsing dance music booms through the auditorium before the stage goes dark. Short interviews are played on video screens, showing the elderly, the unemployed, students, garbage workers, young girls and mothers, in sentences or half-sentences, expressing hopes, desires, complaints or demands: "Better schools, no racism, more safety, less unemployment ..." It's a politically correct kaleidoscope portraying France in every skin color -- black, white and brown.

A dose of emotion

Then Ségolène takes the stage, now once again bathed in light. She is alone, a thin silhouette wearing a red jacket and white blouse; her cheeks are red. She is 53 and looks dazzling, dressed in Paris chic but without even a hint of coquetry. Her gestures are economical and her voice deep. She coolly surveys her raucous supporters in the room below, who become even more rowdy as they play to the cameras: "Ségolène présidente, Ségolène présidente," they shout.

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She has recently added a dose of emotion to her tone. Without mentioning Nicolas Sarkozy, her conservative opponent, by name she talks about solidarity, participation and reconciliation, her voice gradually swelling with feeling. A few representatives from the rank and file of the Socialist Party (PS) occasionally sit in the first few rows, still not quite sure why they should be cheering for this woman on the road to the Elysée Palace. They include Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former minister of economics and finance, Jack Lang, Mitterand's virtuoso minister of culture, and Lionel Jospin, a former prime minister. At the end of Royal's speech the audience -- including the front-row gentlemen in their meticulously tailored suits -- joins together in singing the "Marseillaise."

Royal is campaigning as a politician. But her slogan -- "La France présidente!" -- "France becomes (a female) president" -- also emphasizes her gender. As does France itself. Indeed, the French voted her into sixth place in a list of women with sex appeal, after Angelina Jolie and Czech-born supermodel Adriana Karembeu, but ahead of Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Penelope Cruz. Not bad for a socialist politician born in 1953.

But the real miracle is her rise to power in a male-dominated party. She began as an outsider and encountered resistance within the party's good-old-boy cliques, who long mocked the "Royal phenomenon" as a "media soap bubble." She successfully stood up for herself and developed her ideas of a compassionate republic rooted in the fundamental principles of democracy. It is a vision that is sufficiently lofty and vague to find resonance in all social classes.

A republic of respect

Many of the French adore her for her plainspoken truths, her closeness and her accessibility. When she champions the rights of women, families and the elderly, and when she advocates authority, performance and responsibility in her speeches, Royal often manages to bring tears to the eyes of her audience. "It's heartfelt," says Madame Géraldine in a hall in Montluçon, a town in the Massif Central, "and that is exactly what we all miss."

"Ségolènism" is a typically French emotional and moral about-face rooted in conservative leitmotifs. "I want to straighten up France," promises the candidate. "We need a republic of respect." Her recent complaint that French professional sports figures lack sufficient fervor when singing the "Marseillaise" fits perfectly into this new sense of pride. "The national identity is not the monopoly of some right-wing extremist movement," she says sternly.

Royal has created her own brand of leftist patriotism, rooted in sentimentality and brimming with righteousness, not as aggressive as the approach taken by Sarkozy, who seems intent on, and has been successful at, dividing France.


Photo Gallery: Ségolène Royal

The Race for President Gets Complicated: Revolutionary Centrism in France (03/19/2007)

French Presidential Election: Sarkozy's Rendezvous With Destiny (01/15/2007)

Women and Politics: France, Land of Inequality (12/29/2006)

The Fabulous World of Ségolène: France's Female Presidential Candidate Is Building a Political Machine (11/27/2006)
Ségolène Royal is prescribing herself as a panacea against a widespread malaise, a mood the French describe as "sinistrose" -- an emotion somewhere between self-pity and fear of the future. Her idea of a "just order" is easy to trace back to her own biography and to her provincial childhood, during which her father kept a tight rein on his family.

Jacques Royal, a retired artillery colonel, ran his family as if he were its commanding officer. It was what Royal, himself the son of an army general, had been accustomed to. But instead of fighting the glorious battles of World War II, Royal was damned to fight the battles a declining colonialism -- in places like Indochina and Algeria. He took his family with him from one garrison to the next, to Africa and the Antilles (Marie-Ségolène was born in Senegal, a former French colony in West Africa). But Royal requested an early retirement at 44, and in 1964 the family returned home to the village of Chamagne, where they were prominent citizens.

Their house, a former mansion owned by the dukes of Lorraine, towers over the surrounding farms. A statue of the Virgin Mary sits in a niche above the blue front door. In the days when Madame Royal was still little Marie-Ségolène, the family would make its way to church on Sundays as soon as the bells began ringing, in a procession headed by the father in riding boots, followed by his wife and their eight children in a row, from the oldest to the youngest, the boys dressed in shorts, even in the winter.

"What is your strategy?"

Marie-Ségolène owes her escape from the father's tyranny to her extraordinary ambition and conspicuous intelligence. She graduated from high school with excellent grades, attended the university in Nancy and then went to Paris, where she earned a degree in political science. While her fellow students demonstrated their revolutionary spirit by standing at the gates of Renault plants and distributing Trotskyite treatises in the early mornings, Marie-Ségolène went to class. Free love, revolution and flower power weren't her style. "What is your strategy?" she would ask her fellow students. Even then she would openly tell her friends that she planned to be "president of the republic" one day.

In 1978 she passed the acceptance examination for the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA), France's school for political and business leaders. It was only then that she decided to drop the Catholic part of her first name, Marie. From then on she was only Ségolène Royal. The decision to shorten her name marked the beginning of a larger life.

Her class at ENA, dubbed "Voltaire," became an important breeding ground for the French elite. Her classmates included Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Minister of Culture Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres. Others went on to the boardrooms of major corporations or to become the heads of government-owned companies. Ségolène Royal completed the two-year program in 95th place -- not exactly a shining achievement -- but it was at ENA that she met a charming rising star in the French socialist movement. François Hollande became her life partner and she joined the Socialist Party.

Royal was spared the obligatory long march through the administrative ranks. When François Mitterrand was elected president in 1981, his advisor, Jacques Attali, brought a handful of "promising talents" into the Elysée Palace. From their small attic offices, Hollande and Royal produced reports, memoranda and presentations for the presidential power machine.

"They had original ideas and an incredible intuition for social issues," a former colleague recalls. Royal developed a reputation, and not only for her involvement in grassroots organizations like SOS Racism, but also when rumors that she could be the illegitimate daughter of the socialist monarch sparked the media's interest, and she acquired the nickname "Princess." The media seemed to be her natural allies. Ségolène Royal learned how to capitalize on her attractiveness.

Ideal daughter

A book, "Le printemps des grands-parents" ("The Spring of the Grandparents"), helped. The plea for solid family life became a bestseller and suddenly Madame Royal was appearing on talk shows. Television became her stage, as she captured the hearts of viewers, who envisioned her as the ideal daughter or daughter-in-law.

Mitterand dispatched his youthful junior staff members to capture seats in parliament, and Royal went to Departement Deux-Sèvres in France's rural southwest, where she won her first parliamentary mandate by a slim margin. She never gave it up.

She developed the rural region she now represented in the hinterlands along the Atlantic coast into her power base. She managed to secure many millions for her district, including subsidies to promote tourism in the rainy region or for the production of the local goat's cheese. She combated sex on TV and violence in schools. The mother of four children, she put her family life on display, and glossy magazines soon shaped Mama Royal into the Socialists' rising star.

It is difficult to say when she decided to run for president. It's also difficult to believe that she could have kept it to herself for long. Rumor has it that not even party leader Hollande, the father of her children, was let in on her plans. By the fall of 2005 she was giving interviews and discussing the presidency and her dream of capturing it.

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At first she was the sensation France had been waiting for, tired of the eternal Jacques Chirac and hoping for an alternative to the unpredictable Sarkozy. Then came the almost unavoidable plunge in the opinion polls, brought on by a few foolish remarks abroad about the efficiency of the Chinese legal system and the suffering of the Palestinians. And of course Sarkozy, whose thirst for power is unparalleled, managed to devise ways to narrow her lead. Sarkozy has an extraordinarily well-oiled campaign machine, influential friends in the media and a loyal team.

In contrast, Royal's campaign team comes across as a loose-knit collection of amateurs. Responsibilities overlap between the party and campaign teams, and the candidate's headquarters on Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris deeply distrusts the party's spin machine.

Outsider with the charisma of an archivist

Another problem for Royal is that the French hunger for fresh faces seems insatiable. The aloof François Bayrou, otherwise a ridiculed outsider with the charisma of an archivist, is suddenly experiencing an upturn in the polls as a third, centrist force. A lot seems possible in France, at least for a while.

Meanwhile Royal has rebounded and is close to even with Sarkozy in the opinion polls -- an impressive feat. There is little chance that she will fail in the first round of the election on April 22, as the unfortunate Lionel Jospin did five years ago. But two weeks later the second round will likely turn into a duel between the establishment outsiders: Royal, the candidate of French hearts, and Sarkozy, the candidate of the right-wing middle class.

Royal has gained confidence, and this is evident in her public appearances, where audiences are now arranged in a circle around the candidate. She walks around the circle -- Royal and the French at eye level.

Detractors call it a "Tupperware party campaign," but the emotional quality of her appearances is obvious. Royal seems credible when she talks about the daily woes of the French, about rising rents and about marriage and school problems, and this new credibility is partly responsible for her resurgence after dipping to a low in the opinion polls in February.

She promises a lot to many: free choice of schools, university grants in return for free tutoring, more teachers and community service for young people, jobs for entrants to the labor market, tax reductions for low-wage workers, higher pensions, a greater police presence in "sensitive urban zones," and 120,000 new low-income housing units -- every year.

"I draw the lines"

Royal refers to the campaign as a "mission" she is pursuing, like a modern Joan of Arc. She feels "inspired" when she meets with the masses. "I see your eyes sparkling, your hopes shining bright," she says. And she also says: "I am the only one who knows how to embody and realize what France really needs."

Her words are reminiscent of Mitterand's in 1981, when Paris danced in the streets after his victory. "The socialism that we must reinvent is a socialism that looks at things straight on and dares to call things by their names. A socialism confronted with reality," she says.

But will her appeal work the way Mitterand's did?

The PS logo, a clenched fist and a rose, is absent from her posters. Even the color red is missing. "I take my freedom" and "I draw the lines," the candidate says against the backdrop of a clear blue sky dotted with pleasant little clouds.

Abbé Chevrier follows these religiously tinged appearances with no small measure of satisfaction. "Ségolène no longer goes to church, and they say she doesn't pray anymore," he says, hunched over this desk. "But I don't believe she has forgotten what we gave her before she embarked on this path."


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