TV & Radio
The New York Times Magazine
By JAMES TRAUB
Published: May 14, 2006
There's a reason that the leaders of France's Socialist Party are called "elephants": They live forever. Among the elephants now vying to become the party's candidate for president in next year's election are Laurent Fabius, who served as prime minister 22 years ago, and Lionel Jospin, who served as Socialist Party leader a quarter-century ago and suffered a defeat in the last presidential election so devastating, both for himself and for the party, that you would have thought prudence alone would dictate political retirement. But in France, politics is a profession; once you arrive, you stay.
No one has thought to call Ségolène Royal an elephant. For one thing, it would be unbecoming, since she is a woman — and a woman who, when she works her smile up into her eyes, bears a passing resemblance to Audrey Hepburn. Royal is, remarkably enough, the first truly présidentiable woman in French history. But what is most striking about her candidacy, which so far consists of a highly orchestrated media seduction, is not the fact that she is a woman but rather that she has positioned herself as a nonelephant, indeed, almost an antielephant. She is, in effect, running against France's political culture, which is to say against remoteness and abstraction, ideological entrenchment and male domination itself. And that culture, which is embodied by her own party, has struck back, ridiculing her as a soap bubble borne aloft by a momentary gust of public infatuation.
Earlier this spring, I visited her in Poitiers, the seat of government for the Poitou-Charentes region, south and west of Paris, of which she is the elected president. France was in the midst of one of its periodic re-enactments of the revolution, or at least of the Commune, with students and union activists pouring into the streets to protest a law permitting employers to hire and fire first-time employees without some of the myriad protections generally afforded French workers. But Royal had little interest in joining the fevered national debate over "social protections." Royal has distinguished herself by focusing on the sort of issues — schools, child rearing, the effects of popular culture — that have come to preoccupy many American politicians but generally fall beneath the regard of the bien-pensants of Paris and of the more deeply wrinkled of the elephants. "Trivial things," as Royal put it to me, sarcastically. "Whereas for the people, these are the most important topics."
To the obvious consternation of Fabius, Jospin and the other elephants of the Socialist Party, polls have consistently shown Royal to be the most popular figure in the opposition and possibly in the country. She is the darling of the mass-circulation weeklies, appearing on the cover of four of them in the first week of April, and on daytime television shows, a lowbrow medium where the colleagues who mock her wouldn't be caught dead. She is the only important political figure in France whom everyone refers to by first name. And her popularity seems to rise as the image of politicians in France collectively sinks. "The political class is becoming increasingly alien to the people," says Alain Touraine, a grand old man of French social theory. "When you vote for a woman, it's a symbol of, 'I want to get rid of you' — because the system itself is completely male."
Even to call politics in France a profession puts the case too weakly; it's more like a mandarinate. The French view the state — l'État, always capitalized — with a reverence that can seem anachronistic in a world in thrall to the marketplace. The national educational meritocracy funnels the brightest boys and girls into the great preparatory institutions in Paris, above all the Institut d'Études Politiques, known as Sciences Po, and the École Nationale d'Administration, or ENA. Practically everyone in the upper echelons of French politics attended Sciences Po and went on to become an "Énarque."
Ségolène Royal is a rare insider-outsider who managed to get her ticket punched at all the mandarin way stations without ever appearing to join, or even to aspire to join, the old boys' club. She had to fight her way in; and the fight has never left her. Royal was born in colonial Senegal, the daughter and granddaughter of military officers. Her father, Jacques, was a rigidly conservative martinet with a shaved head and a monocle. Life for the eight Royal children, first in Dakar and then in Lorraine, in eastern France, was joyless and harsh, according to accounts Royal has freely offered. Whatever was not demanded was forbidden. Her brothers were beaten for even tiny infractions; she and her three sisters had the advantage of being ignored. "My father always made us feel," she later told one interviewer, "that we, my sisters and I, were inferior beings." The story of the monstrous father has imbued Royal's life with the improbable flavor of a Grimm fairy tale, and when I asked about her childhood, she said, "Well, it was a bit exaggerated." But in the next breath she explained that her early years had shaped her "in terms of resistance and resilience."
We were sitting in the back seat of a chauffeured car one spring evening after a few local events of the sort that she both enjoys doing and encourages journalists to watch her doing. Royal, who is 52, was impeccably turned out in a short cocoa-colored jacket and matching flared skirt. Her manner was straightforward, with few of the girlish high notes that even highly successful French women have a way of striking. At times she laughed; but although in public she could hold a smile for an hour without faltering, in conversation she did not bother with the instruments of beguilement. (Our discussions were in French; she says that she understands English, but cannot speak it.) I was struck by Royal's verbal economy: she didn't watch her words so much as dole out as many as needed, and no more, which felt almost like parsimony compared with the performative flourishes that make French politics such a delightful parlor game.
Like so many miserable children, Royal was saved by school. I asked if anyone had encouraged her studies.
"Yes, my teachers."
"Anyone in your family? Your mother?"
"No." Her mother came from a bourgeois background and read books and newspapers. But girls were not to furrow their brows with too much learning, she told me: "We were simply supposed to get married." Royal not only escaped from her suffocating father, she also defined herself in opposition to him. The dark fairy tale is central to her own narrative of resistance and resilience. She has long told the story that one day her father simply rode away on a bicycle and abandoned the family; in fact, her mother told a biographer, it was she who at long last left her husband. But while Royal repudiated her father's reactionary politics and machismo, she inherited his rigor and perhaps also his icy clarity of purpose. "I see a goal, I organize myself accordingly, I evaluate, I achieve it," she said. "It's very military."
Like Bill Clinton, Royal is a true champion of the educational meritocracy. She had never even heard of the grandes écoles, but when one of her sisters mentioned a preparatory program for Sciences Po, she signed up. And soon this hungry young provincial arrived in Paris, prepared to adapt and conquer. She kept to herself, worked with the diligence and resolve of a soldier's daughter and entered ENA in 1978. There she met her future partner, a wry and amiable intellectual named François Hollande. Both were recruited to work on François Mitterand's presidential campaign; when Mitterand, in 1981, became France's first Socialist president in more than 30 years, both Royal and Hollande were inducted into Élysée Palace as policy aides. In just such a manner does the Énarque convert intellectual capital into political fuel.
Mitterand became if not quite Royal's mentor then certainly her role model. According to Sophie Bouchet-Pedersen, then a colleague at Élysée and now one of Royal's policy advisers, "She learned from Mitterand how to govern, how politics must take primacy over technocracy; and then will — that in the end, politics is a matter of will." Mitterand was said to dote on his young aide, and she, in turn, identified with him. "He was from around here, in Charente," she told me. "He wasn't from a very rich family. He must have always had this inferiority complex of provincials who didn't sparkle in society. But he climbed the hierarchy; and he always preserved a certain joy and a popular touch." She, too, was a provincial upstart with the will to sweep obstacles from her path; she could climb the hierarchy as the majestic Monsieur le Président had done.
As Mitterand's first term was ending in 1988, Royal told party officials that she wanted to run for the National Assembly, though she and Hollande, who have never married, already had three children. She was given an unpromising, traditionally conservative district in Poitou-Charentes. As Royal has told the story, she dropped the kids off with Hollande's mother, leapt onto the train just in time to register her candidacy and began introducing herself in a region where she knew no one. And she won. Five years later, when France turned to the right and a great many Socialists were defeated, Royal improved her margin. She was named minister of the environment in 1992, and when President Chirac of the right-leaning Union for a Popular Movement Party was forced to share power with the Socialists after 1997, she served as minister of education and then of family and childhood.
These were "women's jobs," but Royal, who knew a good deal more about real life than most of her colleagues, made a virtue of her second-tier status. At the same time that President Bill Clinton was clearing political space for the Democrats by advocating school uniforms and V-chips, Royal was instituting such modest and homey reforms as requiring separate copies of report cards to be sent to both parents, in order to ensure that fathers as well as mothers were engaged in their children's education. She criticized popular culture, advocated paternal as well as maternal leave, campaigned to increase the punishment for pedophilia. Unlike virtually any other prominent member of her party, she spoke not only of rights but also of responsibilities — of parents, of teachers, of workers. She wrote books, as an ambitious French politician is expected to do, though usually on what might be construed as women's-magazine topics: "The Springtime of Grandparents," "The Baby Channel-Surfers Are Fed Up" and a memoir, "One Woman's Truth," in which she frankly recounted some of the hair-raising tales of her upbringing.
Royal's crusades may actually have lowered her standing among her own colleagues; the books vanished without a trace. What endured were Royal herself and the strikingly new feminine persona she was delineating. She was a leftist who stood up for old-fashioned values, a chic cosmopolitan who was imbued with a respect for tradition and order. She was unmarried but monogamous and, more important, a mother. She was photographed in bed with the youngest of her four children, surrounded by both work and the clutter of motherhood. Her femininity never faltered; neither did her air of omnicompetence. There had literally never been anyone like her before. And yet many French women recognized themselves, or an ideal self, in Ségolène. Michèle Fitoussi, an editor at French Elle, remembers watching her at a luncheon: "She discusses policy, and then the mobile phone rings and it's her daughter, and she says, 'Yes, you have to go here and here.' It was like women all over the country. We deal with all these things at once."
And Royal had the raw ambition of the parvenu. In 1997, when Jospin and another stalwart were deadlocked in a struggle to lead the party, and thus possibly to become prime minister, Royal, at the time a mere backbencher, floated the possibility of challenging both. François Hollande persuaded her to wait her turn, but Jospin, who became prime minister, apparently never forgot the act of impertinence. Pascale Robert-Diard, who was then covering the prime minister's office for Le Monde, says that she used to ask party functionaries why they weren't sending Royal, who was so popular, out to the hustings. "Because Jospin can't stand her," she was told. But Royal was irrepressible. In 2004 she ran for president of Poitou-Charentes, a job previously held by Jean-Pierre Raffarin, then serving as prime minister under Chirac. And again, confounding expectations, she won. It seemed that she had some talent for getting people to vote for her.
But that scarcely qualified her, in the eyes of the Socialist elite, to run for the presidency. It was bad enough that she was a woman. But to be president of the republic one must demonstrate gravitas, stoic endurance, global reach, celestial grandeur. One should, if at all possible, as the journalist (and Royal's biographer) Daniel Bernard wrote earlier this year, quote "Huntington, Machiavelli, Baverez, Hegel, Jaurès, Sollers and Seneca." In his book "Les Prétendants 2007," Alain Duhamel, supreme arbiter of the French political scene, handicapped the candidates from all sides. Royal, in contrast to figures like Laurent Fabius, who lumbered far behind her in the polls, did not even make the cut. She wasn't serious. And in any case it wasn't her turn. What about her partner, M. Hollande, who by then had become leader of the party? Surely he took precedence.
It was, in fact, a bizarre and very touchy situation. Royal says that she would not have run against her partner, and in fact waited until it became clear that he would not be a candidate. She declared her own intentions last September in an interview in Paris Match — itself a calculated affront to Socialist high seriousness.
Worse yet, the article included winsome photographs of Royal with her younger daughter. Party leaders were meeting in the Burgundian city of Nevers when the article appeared; Royal's brazen display of comeliness, of family and family values — in short, her ragingly successful politics of the self — made the elephants go berserk. Laurent Fabius issued what must have seemed a wicked jape aimed at both Royal and Hollande: "But who's going to watch the kids?" Soon it was open season on the Socialist siren. "The presidency is not a beauty contest," groused another party leader.
But Royal's strategy, as Daniel Bernard observed, consisted of betting that the French were sick of the culture of the old guard and the narrowness and sterility of its discourse. She has behaved with calculated insouciance. Last fall, she skipped a commemorative event for Mitterand in order to fly to Chile and campaign for Michelle Bachelet, a Socialist aspiring to be the first woman to be president of that country. Royal was mocked for grandstanding — the press jeered at her for wearing high heels — until Bachelet won, and suddenly it was Royal who represented the feminized Socialist future, her colleagues locked in the Mitterandist past.
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