Brief Lives March 2007

The Royal Oui?

A vote for France’s first female president may not deliver the political change the country wants.

Aymeric Mantoux and Benoist Simmat, in their scathing biography Ségolène Royal: La Dame Aux Deux Visages (Ségolène Royal: The Lady With Two Faces), describe Royal as “a woman of the left and a mother of the right,” which says it well. Royal has turned the “minor” cabinet portfolios pooh-poohed by the political class into powerful emblems of her commitment to what ordinary people care about: family, education, work, order, the environment.

But when the media and the opposition clamor for a program, anything they can sink their claws into, Royal resists and deflects and defers to the populace. On her first foreign trip as the Socialist presidential candidate, to the Middle East, she stumbled a couple of times in the rhetorical crossfire, but wound up embraced by Ehud Olmert and returned to no discernible change in her very positive poll numbers. Indeed, she has constructed a presidential campaign, at least so far, around not having all the answers, around “listening.” She pioneered interactive politicking on the Internet here with a site whose name, Désirs d’Avenir (Desires for the Future), says it all about the fuzziness of her profile. In effect, Royal is asking voters to look at her person, not at her party or her plan.

The Mary Tyler Moore smile aside, Ségolène Royal has a crisp, distant hauteur that she may have inherited from her father, a monocled disciplinarian and French army lieutenant colonel whose brothers were Petainistes. She was born in Dakar and moved to Martinique before he retired; after that, the family settled in a village in the Lorraine region to a straitened petit-bourgeois existence. She was the fourth of eight brothers and sisters, the latter “inferior beings” in the family, she says. At nineteen, while a student in nearby Nancy, she took in her mother, who had finally left her autocratic husband, and helped her to sue him in court.

Royal’s family crucible has captivated the French public, for it grounds the candidate’s image in a French log-cabin story about a girl from the provinces who threw off a bitter yoke and reinvented herself in the city. It also explains for many her choice of a family without marriage (not so unusual in France) and the victimology that tints her rhetoric, although always with a culminating triumph over adversity.

“I decided that the injustice done to women should not become fatal to me,” she said in a recent television interview. “I saw school as a way to take back my freedom, and that’s the way it should be for young people today.” In one speech in the late 1990s, she chose to address the sainted Joan of Arc herself: “I want to tell you, in the name of all women, our sisters who were immolated, mutilated, sold, exploited, killed at birth because they were women, that we need so much for other Joans to rise up in the world,” declared the future volunteer. “Politics, like you, should be disturbing, boldly generous, fiercely ethical.”

Marc Lambron, an esteemed novelist here, was intrigued enough to dash off a book about Royal last fall; it opens with the speculation that she is another secret daughter of François Mitterrand. Purely figuratively, of course, this former Mitterrand aide is cast as a symbol of the left’s monarchic succession.

Over glasses of tomato juice in a Left Bank café, the entertaining Lambron compared Royal’s decapitation of the Socialist Party leadership to Uma Thurman’s vengeful swordplay in Kill Bill. He also compared Royal, not without disdain, to a televangelist for a confidence-starved nation, with her “charismatic message of hope, of restoring pride and finishing with this masochism.” Her phrase just order, he noted, is from Aquinas by way of Benedict XVI. And against the saintly white tailoring Royal favors, Lambron added, stands Sarkozy, who always seems to appear shadowy and sly—“the Soprano thing.”

Lambron is unbothered and unsurprised by Royal’s refusal to be drawn into what might be called inside-the-beltway arguments about policy. The French put a different kind of store in their chief of state: The president is, in a sense, the last vestige of the royal. If they elect Ségolène Royal, Lambron believes, it will reflect a healthy desire for alternance (throwing out incumbents) and for a new way of seeing themselves in the mirror. “We want to be a country of prophets, revolutionaries,” he said. “We like to give lessons to the rest of Europe about modernity.”

Since concrete and painful solutions do not seem to be yet at hand, what better placebo—or even potential catalyst— than electing a modern woman as president of France? I like one of the slogans being bandied about to describe the gamble of the French voter this spring: “Better to be wrong with Ségolène than right with Sarko.”

When the French go to bed with a new president on the night of May 6, we can say with certainty that voters will have opted for change. Unspecified change, and maybe just the appearance of change. And if they choose Ségolène Royal, possibly narrowly, they will have taken a risk that says more about their hunger for leadership than it does, necessarily, about Madame Royal.

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Charles Trueheart’s profile of Nicolas Sarkozy appeared in the September 2005 Atlantic.

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