France’s Royal Visage

Ségolenè Royal has surged to the front of the pack of Socialists who aim to succeed Jacques Chirac as President of France. Nobody would have bet a single euro on such a prospect a few months ago. Until recently, Royal – who now is merely the head of one France’s 22 regional governments – was best known as the non-married partner of François Hollande, the Socialist Party leader. Yet, according to the polls, she is the only left-leaning candidate who looks able to defeat Nicolas Sarkozy, the current Interior Minister and odds-on favorite to be the center-right’s standard bearer in the presidential election next May.

How did Royal rise so far and so fast? One reason is that she is the only fresh face among those Socialists vying for the party nomination. Laurent Fabius, Martine Aubry, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Jack Lang, and even Hollande are all former senior ministers who neutralized each other, while Lionel Jospin, the former Prime Minister, decided to put an end to his political career after his defeat in 2002. Each of them has strengths and weaknesses, but none seems able to challenge Sarkozy. Indeed, confronted with her lead, both Jospin and Hollande have dropped out of the race.

So there was a vacuum to fill, accompanied by a strong desire among the party faithful for revival. Royal’s chief virtue is that she has not taken part in the numerous internal battles that infuriate socialist militants and voters, and her lack of direct association with the party’s leadership has enabled her to avoid blame for its mistakes. That is why, far from being a disadvantage, her peripheral position is one of her main assets.

She has slim and politically minor ministerial experience – Environment Minister in 1992-1993, Deputy Minister for Secondary Education in 1997-2000, and Minister for Family Affairs in 2000-2002 – and has drawn attention mainly for her work on subjects related to daily problems, such as kids’ TV programs and mistreatment in schools. But, while other politicians do not regard these matters as politically important, they mean a lot to most ordinary citizens. That is why people tend to view her as a sincere politician, rather than one concerned only about personal ambition.