France is mired in an antiquated economic and social system, overtaxed and overregulated, underemployed and underproductive, congenitally immobile when not sporadically violent. The French themselves say so, and their pride is wounded.
In fact, the French have been declaring their disgust with the status quo for some time now: by voting, in shocking numbers, for quasi-loony far-right candidates; by crippling President Jacques Chirac’s clumsy efforts at loosening labor laws; by torching cars and public buildings in an outpouring of frustration and despair; by vetoing a new European constitution written by a former French president and endorsed by virtually the whole French political class.
So it follows that for the presidential elections of 2007, a two-round affair in late April and early May, the two leading parties of the right and left have chosen upstart candidates. Both Nicolas Sarkozy, fifty-two, and Ségolène Royal, fifty-three, mimicked the restive mood of the street by brazenly usurping power from their elders, notably (in Sarkozy’s case) a sitting seventy-four-year-old president who never really said he wasn’t running for a third term.
"Waiting for Sarko" (September 2005)
Will Nicolas Sarkozy vanquish his mentor Jacques Chirac to become France's first "American" president? By Charles Trueheart
A country evidently hungry for change rewarded both candidates for breaking with party orthodoxy and political euphemism alike. Sarkozy has called for a “peaceful rupture” with the past, an ironic plea from the standard-bearer of the party that has governed France for a decade. And Royal has shocked her own Socialist Party by calling for boot camps for juvenile offenders, reeducation for their parents, and a return to a “just order” of hard work and family values. Both also made waves by pointing beyond French borders at alternative models of governance, Sarkozy looking toward the United States (quelle horreur!) and Royal to Britain and Sweden.
Sarkozy—President Chirac’s sharp-elbowed interior minister and renegade party chief, long a fixture in the public eye—has developed a law-and-order rap in sync with voters tempted by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far-right National Front, always a threat to both mainstream parties. Royal, with her own brand of tough love—and with a smile to answer Sarkozy’s scowl—has managed to appeal to those voters too.
But not just to them. Her transcendent appeal is not about her policy prescriptions (they’ve been paltry) so much as it is about her own self—and about the way France wants to see itself. Her gender obviously has something to do with this.
She first caught the eye of France, in fact, by an act that took part of her private life public and fused feminism and maternity. While serving as the environment minister under François Mitterrand, she posed for Paris Match magazine and national television shortly after she delivered the last of her four children. A marginal party figure in some eyes, she somehow came to dominate French political popularity polling thereafter. And that began to matter three years ago when she showed unwonted electoral chops by wresting power from the regional machine of Chirac’s then prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, to become president of Poitou-Charentes.
Last spring and summer the old guard of the Socialist Party stood agog when Royal emerged as a credible national presidential candidate by matching up well in polls against Sarkozy while the “elephants” of her party did not. “The moment when Ségolène’s victory became perceived by women as personal vengeance against their husband, their father, or their boss, there was nothing to do,” lamented Jack Lang, the sixty-seven-year-old former culture minister and inveterate Socialist presidential aspirant.
Another, younger elephant with distinct presidential ambitions was Royal’s own lifelong partner and the father of her children, François Hollande, head of the Socialist Party. He bravely soldiers on now for her victory, furnishing a maverick candidate with the official party apparatus and possibly reassuring Socialist voters uneasy with Royal’s dangerously free thinking—about revisiting the thirty-five-hour workweek or suggesting that teachers in particular should work longer hours, for example. Hollande and Royal, whatever may go on in their discreetly opaque private lives, remain successful political partners (think, perhaps, of the Clintons) who have also raised four children together while following busy careers—not unlike a great many other French couples.