On Sunday, France will hold its first round of balloting for a new president. This is the second of three posts on the leading candidates by the French editor and journalist Michel Gurfinkiel. A longer and more in-depth look by Gurfinkiel at the condition of present-day France will be coming out in the May issue of COMMENTARY.
Ségolène Royal is the first woman ever credibly to bid for the French presidency. There have been some female candidates over the last decades, including the Trotskyite “red virgin” Arlette Laguiller, who has been running regularly since 1974. But Royal is the first woman ever nominated by a major political party and the first to stand some chance of being elected.
This is a very real asset: France today is as enamored of gender equality as any Western nation and has even passed regulations requiring equal numbers of men and women in many elected bodies. In addition, Royal is quite a womanly woman—exceedingly beautiful at 20, if one is to judge from photographs released to the press, and still a very attractive brunette who looks much younger than her 53 years.
Her background could hardly be more different from that of her chief rival, Nicolas Sarkozy. Both Royal’s paternal and maternal ancestors come from the Lorraine, a deeply Catholic and deeply patriotic province on the German border. Her paternal grandfather, Florian Royal, the son of a farmer, joined the army, became a commissioned officer during World War I, and finally reached the rank of general. Her father, Jacques Royal, was a colonel in the artillery. On her mother’s side, she descends from a wealthy bourgeois family from Nancy, Lorraine’s provincial capital.
Royal’s history differs sharply from Sarkozy’s in another, far more important, respect: she has never held a single important cabinet position. Her main political achievement to date has been her defeat of the conservative former prime minister Jean-Claude Raffarin in the contest for chairmanship of the regional council of Poitou-Charentes in 2004. (Not exactly a ringing triumph: the socialists swept twenty regions out of twenty-two in that election.) But just as the Right would later rally around Sarkozy simply in order to stop Royal, the Left started to consider her as a potential candidate for the presidency in 2004 and 2005 against the meteorically rising Sarkozy. The old guard of the Socialist party—figures such as the former premiers Lionel Jospin and Laurent Fabius and the former minister of the economy Dominique Strauss-Kahn—seemed unlikely to win in a duel with the young, brash, and popular minister of the interior. What the Left needed was somebody new and different: a new face, a new voice, somebody who would attend, at least in a subliminal way, to the psychological needs of a sinking nation.
There were two successive stages in Royal’s campaign. From December 2005 until early this year, she stormed the ramparts of the Socialist party and secured the nomination. Throughout this period, she took an almost neoconservative stance on most issues, horrifying many party activists but eliciting enthusiastic interest among the French public. This was true in foreign policy—in December 2006, she said bluntly that she not only opposed Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weaponry but any transfer of civilian nuclear technology as well—and it was no less true in domestic policy. Royal, inevitably dressed in immaculate white, stood for discipline in school, boot camps for truants and juvenile delinquents, a revision of the 35-hour work week, swift justice (she mentioned China as a model), and a booming economy (she mentioned China again). The European press wondered whether she might be a French Margaret Thatcher.
The second stage, from January on, was something else again. No longer content with brief, carefully planned utterances, she began to take part in TV and radio debates, listen to ordinary people, quote detailed figures, make promises, and to react on a daily basis to the flow of current events. She was not, to put it mildly, up to the job. The first time she was asked tough questions about world politics, she replied: “You would not test me like that, were I not a woman.” The second time, she gave embarrassingly wrong answers. If elected, she said, she would introduce a law against domestic violence—without realizing that such a law had just been passed by the current government. She declared herself against excessive taxation at the very moment François Hollande, her party’s head (and, incidentally, the father of her four children), was proclaiming that a left-wing government would raise taxes dramatically.
In addition, it became clear that she was not gifted as a speaker. She had no sense for puns, bons mots, or humor. Instead, she reveled in pompous, newly fabricated words: her praise of Chinese bravitude (instead of bravoure, the normal French word for bravery) will go down in history as a crushingly inept piece of political neologism.
The upshot of all this? On January 1, 2007, Royal was leading comfortably in the polls, with 52 percent of the prospective votes in the second presidential ballot. One month later, after her campaign blitz, Sarkozy had overtaken her—by five points. Royal’s wreck was not, however, Sarkozy’s salvation. Two other viable (at least in theory) candidates have re-appeared on the political scene: the centrist former education minister François Bayrou and the infamous nationalist provocateur Jean-Marie Le Pen. Dark horses though these men may be, they do pose a strategic threat to both the Sarkozy and Royal campaigns—for very different reasons.