TV & Radio
Two women consider run for French presidency
By Elizabeth Bryant
United Press International
Published September 27, 2005
So what if France's next head of state were a "she?"
The question has long been a favored theme of talk-show debates, but nobody really took the idea seriously -- in part, because there were no viable candidates at hand. Until now.
This month, two prominent female members of France's top two parties suggested they might consider running in the 2007 presidential elections. Not in so many words. They are, after all, politicians.
But Socialist party deputy Segolene Royal -- the female half of France's leftist power couple -- said in early September she might mull a bid if nobody better did so. Then France's center-right Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie suggested, sort of, that she might do the same.
"I'll participate in the presidential debate," Alliot-Marie told Le Journal de Dimanche newspaper, in an interview published Sunday. "I've even the intention of playing a top role."
Pundits have seized that ambiguous statement as a near-declaration of intent. Never mind that Alliot-Marie's Union for a Popular Movement party already has two formidable presidential hopefuls -- French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who also heads the UMP party.
Or that the current president -- Jacques Chirac -- has not yet ruled out running for a third presidential term, however unlikely the prospect.
"Elysee 2007: Two women advance," the Journal du Dimanche wrote in a headline Sunday.
"I have the feeling that being a woman isn't a handicap anymore to become a presidential candidate," said Etienne Schweisguth, an analyst at the Paris-based Center for the Studies of French Political Life, assessing the sentiments of ordinary French.
France's male-heavy political class, however, may be another matter, he noted. A smattering of high-profile reactions suggests that a few members are less than enthusiastic about giving females a leg up.
"Who's going to look after the children?" was the response of former Socialist prime minister -- and current presidential hopeful -- Laurent Fabius, at chances that Royal, a mother of four, might run for the job.
Another Socialist politician, Jean-Luc Melenchon, reportedly grumbled that running for France's top post "is not a beauty contest."
Although France passed a political "parity law" a few years ago, female politicians remain in the minority here. Alliot-Marie is the only woman with a top Cabinet post in the current French government. By contrast, eight out of 16 ministers in neighboring Spain are female.
Only 71, or about 12 percent, of France's 577 National Assembly deputies are women. But in Germany, 32 percent of newly the elected Bundestag is female. Moreover, Christian Democratic leader Angela Merkel is now battling to become Germany's next chancellor, following inconclusive elections last week.
It's unlikely a female politician will even make the run-off in France's presidential race, 20 months from now.
But even the debate over a future Madame la Presidente -- not to mention the appearance of two qualified potential contenders -- is a breath of fresh air here. It means "minds are less and less closed to the question of a woman president," France's leftist Liberation newspaper wrote in an editorial this week.
For the moment, 52-year-old Royal appears to have the better chance. A striking woman with long brown hair, Royal is a former environment and family affairs minister who is regularly voted among the most popular politicians in France.
She scored a 60 percent approval rating in a Paris-Match poll taken earlier this month. That places her seventh in the most favored presidential candidates' list -- behind a string of men...and Alliot-Marie.
Another poll published Sunday by Le Journal du Dimanche placed her second, behind former education minister Jacques Lang, as the most-favored Socialist candidate for president.
"She's got a real political touch," said Schweisguth of the Center for Political Life. "When she talks, she always focuses on one main subject, which she speaks about very clearly without getting destabilized by her adversary."
Royal has even shown she can hold her own against Interior Minister Sarkozy, a renowned and formidable debater.
Nor does it hurt that Royal's partner is none other than Socialist party head Francois Hollande. Hollande has been written off as an uncharismatic contender. With the Socialists split between a leftist streak spearheaded by Fabius, and a rightist one headed by former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss Kahn, Royal might become the fallback candidate for president.
Prospects appear less bright for 59-year-old Alliot-Marie. Unlike the fractured Socialists, the UMP party has two strong potential candidates in Sarkozy and Villepin.
Critics also suggest Alliot-Marie lacks the right presidential stuff. "She's very stiff. She lacks charm," Schweisguth said. "But she also doesn't have the authoritarian personality of a Margaret Thatcher. She's not really a natural politician."
Alliot-Marie has been underestimated before, however. In 1999, she deftly trounced male rivals to cinch the presidency of Chirac's former Rally for the Republic party.
Now, with an eye on her political future and legacy, she published "Le Chene qu'on Releve" last week -- a feel-good book about France, aimed to counter the current national trend of hand wringing.
If nothing else, election fever is taking an unexpected twist. When another Socialist party politician, Marylise Lebranchu, jokingly suggested last weekend that she, too, might run for president, a regional newspaper ran a dead serious story on her prospects the next day.
"I'll have to ring my parents," Lebranchu said, after the article appeared in Le Telegramme de Brest, "to reassure them that their daughter is not completely crazy."