The Royal Oui?

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

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.

From the archives:

"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.

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.