Friday, May 19, 2006 Last Update:
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."
ven 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.
Royal's legend has grown apace. Like Nicolas Sarkozy — minister of the interior, abrasive leader of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement and a likely presidential candidate — she would not toe the party line. "I will guard my freedom of speech to the very end, come what may," she announced to yet another magazine reporter. Like the current prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, she harbored a sense of destiny: "I am ready," she told one and all. And unlike the others, she listened.
On her Web site, Désirs d'Avenir (Wishes for the Future), she invited visitors to express their views rather than offering pensées of her own.
But she could spit nails if she needed to. When I asked Royal whether her success had blunted the attack from the left, she shot back: "It's getting worse, because they're afraid. They've invested so many years themselves that they think my popularity is an imposture, ephemeral, unwarranted, undeserved, dangerous — as if a democracy of opinion is worth nothing."
It is the democracy of opinion that Royal is offering the French people. She had, she told me, laid out her credo in the draft of the first chapter of a book she has begun to write, also to be titled "Désirs d'Avenir". She sent me the piece, which was called "The Democratic Disorder" and which barely touches on France's place in the world, the consuming preoccupation of her rivals' manifestoes. Royal writes instead about the relationship of politicians to voters, arguing that diminishing turnout, the ominous popularity of the far-right-wing National Front and even the repudiation last year of the E.U. Constitution are all symptoms of a deep national disaffection from, and disgust with, mainstream political culture. These protest votes, or nonvotes, spring from citizens who are deeply pessimistic about their prospects, who feel that France is adrift. She argues, in the manner of centrist Democrats courting red-state voters, that the "nostalgia for 'traditional values' " that many National Front voters cite is less a harbinger of protofascism than a rejection of value-neutral politics. The answer, she claims, is a new kind of politics, respectful of public opinion, modest in its claims, transparent, accountable and, above all, "concrete" rather than abstract. Her book, which is to appear in September, when the Socialists draw up their official list of candidates, is unlikely to narrow the gulf between Royal's popular following and her standing in the party's inner councils.
y the time I arrived in Paris, in mid-March, Ségomania had been temporarily supplanted by the nationwide furor over précarité, a word most usefully translated as "insecurity." The French regard the protection of job security as a fundamental obligation of the state. But France's unemployment rate, which has not gone below 8 percent for years and now hovers around 10 percent, is usually ascribed to the reluctance of firms to hire new workers whom it will find prohibitively burdensome and expensive to lay off. Young people with only ordinary credentials, including a college degree, often find it extremely difficult to break into the labor market; unemployment among the young is estimated to be as high as 22 percent. The employment system that has evolved in recent decades looks and feels very much like an American university, where junior faculty members scramble desperately to find a position, their passage upward blocked by the ponderous mass of tenured faculty, secure for life.
It was the Union for a Popular Movement Party that opened the Pandora's box of insecurity. Responding in part to the riots that tore apart the country's suburbs the previous fall, Dominique de Villepin had introduced the "first employment contract," known in French as the C.P.E., in the hope of increasing employment opportunities for disadvantaged youth. Workers under 26 holding their first full-time jobs would have, in effect, a probationary period of two years during which an employer could lay them off without having to endure the elaborate judicial process to which employees can otherwise resort. This was a rather timid and piecemeal approach to labor-market reform, and for that reason it appeared to single out younger workers for punishment rather than increasing opportunities for them. Worse still, by presenting this immensely controversial measure as if he had received it from a whirlwind atop Mount Sinai, thus precluding all debate, the magisterial Villepin only confirmed the worst suspicions, which is to say that the center-right government was in league with "the bosses" to keep workers in a state of serfdom. And when students and union members predictably took to the streets, the Socialists just as predictably endorsed the call to virtually shut down the country until the law was withdrawn — which President Chirac ultimately agreed to do, in a humiliating rebuff to Villepin.
It was as quintessentially French a melodrama as, say, the battle over Terri Schiavo's fate was an American one. Revolution is the only form of political activity in France that feels fully legitimate; so even the deeply conservative demand for security takes the form of insurrection. And the French still speak of "the bosses" as a class of bloodsuckers.
As Alain Touraine observes: "The main French idea is that there is an absolute contradiction between social good and economic interests. Where else do you hear this, besides maybe Belarus?" The historic destiny of the left is to use the power of the state to protect the people from the ravages of the marketplace; the loneliness of the endeavor only increases its nobility.
As Nicolas Domenach, a political commentator and an editor of the cheeky, leftish magazine Marianne, put it to me: "One could be arrogant, that is to say French, and say that someone must guard against the omnipotence of liberalism. But I would argue that France is not the exception but rather the avant-garde. If we talk again a year from now, you will see counterliberal movements across Europe."
Yet this sense of moral superiority, and the reflexive horror at the unleashed energies of the marketplace, have plainly been losing force as France's per capita wealth falls behind that of countries like Ireland and Britain. Editorials in the center-left Le Monde lambasted Villepin for his high-handed manner but acknowledged the need to reform labor markets. Scholars and journalists routinely speak of a crisis, or a paralysis, gripping the country.
Gérard Grunberg, a leading scholar at Sciences Po, told me: "There is no liberal tradition on either the left or the right; there isn't even a place for a social-liberal party, because it would imply an acceptance of labor-market flexibility. It would imply that the state isn't the sole guarantor of the collective interest, which is entrenched in French culture. It is the state that embodies and guarantees the collective interests; the rest is selfish individualism." And this antimarket, antiglobalist posture, Grunberg argues, "resounds among the people, because the people are afraid."
The Socialist Party, perhaps wisely, harvested the growing public outrage over the C.P.E. without offering any alternative of its own. As party head, François Hollande led the attack on Villepin and the ruling party. Ségolène Royal kept mum, as she has done on almost all major subjects. But she was tempted to separate herself from the herd.
In early February, just as the debate over the labor law was heating up, she was quoted as saying: "I think Tony Blair has been caricatured in France. It does not bother me to claim adherence to some of his ideas." She even praised his policy of promoting employment among the youth through increased flexibility. This was sacrilege: flexibilité is the fighting word of French employers, and thus the symbolic opposite of précarité. Royal, trying to cover her tracks, explained that she had in fact used the word "souplesse" — suppleness — and that of course she, too, abhorred flexibilité. But she had opened herself to charges of apostasy. Laurent Fabius, addressing a crowd of 1,200 supporters, declared that the Socialist Party would not succeed by "cultivating I-don't-know-what politically ambiguous position" — a reference meant to be lost on no one.
In fact, Royal seems innocent of any taint of economic liberalism. She regards Villepin's peremptory imposition of the new law as a sign of a systematic failure to listen to ordinary people; but she does not view the national suspicion of market forces as a comparable source of paralysis. I was surprised, I said during our interview, that someone whose entire life constituted a triumph over adversity would join the campaign to insure against précarité. It was early afternoon, and Royal had ushered me into her large, sunny office, whose elegantly rusticized furnishings — a veined leaf pattern repeated in leather and cast iron — offered a cosmopolitan nod at provincial motifs. Politicians, in my experience, generally like to crowd into your space, but Royal took up her post behind her big glass desk, while I sat a distance off, a placement that lent itself more to the issuing of dictums than to the politics of proximity. Royal countered my observation with a familiar refrain: "The problem is that everybody isn't subject to insecurity. Do you see businessmen being fired for incompetence? The young see politicians, who also have a stable and secure job, being civil servants, lecturing others on insecurity. So the young graduate will say, 'In the name of what am I going to sign an insecure contract?' "
Then the conversation took an odd turn. Royal asked me, with the air of someone pulling out a trump card, "Are you in an insecure situation?" Actually, I explained, as a contract writer for this magazine, I have little security.
Royal wasn't going to be put off the scent that easily. "Yes, but how many years does your contract last?"
"I sign a new one every year."
Now she was frankly incredulous. "You could be fired every year?" For all her own experience, Royal apparently viewed précarité as a kind of socioeconomic stigma rather than the price you might choose to pay for freedom. Or maybe you could say that for her, as for the left generally — and not only in France — market liberalism and globalization have the status merely of fact, which is categorically inferior to a right. This is no less so if the fact appears to obviate the right.
"The global economy shouldn't be supported by wage earners," Royal insisted. "They have to be able to build a future, like any human being."
Royal is not actually opposed to labor-market reform; she advocates the model the Danes call flex-security, in which the state guarantees lifelong training, job placement and unemployment insurance, so that workers can easily move among jobs.
But since she is also on record as advocating giant public-works projects, she may be more devoted to the job insurance than the market-sensitive side of this approach.
Some of Royal's supporters take the optimistic view that her empiricism, her disdain for ideological litmus tests, will ultimately lead her away from the party's hermetic dogma. One of her most celebrated and least likely advocates, Daniel Cohn-Bendit — Danny the Red, when he manned the barricades of 1968 — suggests just this possibility. Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the Green Party and a rebel to the last, has outraged compatriots old and new by describing himself as a liberal. Cohn-Bendit admits that he has no reason to believe that Royal shares his views, but he also feels, as did so many of the people I spoke to, that French politics has reached a dead end. "You have to create a situation where you're ready to debate your proposition," Cohn-Bendit contends, "where you say, 'We together will decide to take this risk, because there is no easy solution.' " Royal has, he says, the inner freedom to take this route. What's more, he says, "To think of a president with four children and not married — it's a revolution!"
eated beside Royal as she was driven back to Poitiers after an annual awards dinner at a sports club, I mentioned that we hadn't yet discussed some of the major issues she would face as president. What about terrorism? And Iraq? Royal responded with a surprising question of her own: "Would you ask this of a man?"
"Of course I would."
"If you were interviewing Laurent Fabius, you would never ask him, 'Can you lay out your planetary vision in 15 minutes?' "
I pointed out that she was, after all, hoping to be president of France. Royal said that it wasn't the right moment; she would present her vision when she was ready. I pressed her. "You're saying it's too early?"
Apparently I had asked once too often. Her smile vanished, and she said: "I refuse to be infantilized by being asked questions which imply that I know nothing, that I'm the result of a media bubble. I haven't heard Fabius or Sarkozy explain their vision of the world and of interplanetary coherence."
Royal's reaction felt so hyperbolic as to be either a cynical ploy — which I doubted — or evidence that her astonishing record of success had barely touched her inner sense of beleaguerment, of victimization. This, too, has become part of the Ségolène legend. Two weeks after our conversation, "Les Guignols," a popular television show that satirizes France's leading political and cultural figures, had a sketch featuring a puppet Ségolène. An interviewer asks, "Are you truly a Socialist candidate?" and Royal, her smile never faltering, shoots back, "You would never ask such a question of a man." At lunch, the waiter suggests "an excellent sole," and she retorts, "You only recommend fish because I'm a woman, and you assume I have to watch what I eat." And when she comes home to François, complaining about the obstacles she must clear as a female politician, her partner, ensconced in his reading chair, soothingly says, "Ah, Ségolène." She cuts him off: "Would you call me Ségolène if I were a man?"
She never did discuss her planetary views. The French do, in fact, expect their president to cut an impressive figure at global meetings, and this weakness, if it is a weakness, will be mercilessly exploited by her rivals in the party, not to speak of those in the Union for a Popular Movement Party. Has she thought seriously about international affairs, or European integration or the questions of identity and immigration that now beset France and all of Europe? The paper trail is almost nonexistent. Daniel Bernard, her biographer, says that he canvassed her colleagues both from Élysée Palace and from Jospin's cabinet to learn what she thought about the issues of the day; none had any idea. These days she often gives the impression that "having views" is itself an expression of political arrogance. She, by contrast, will tap the wisdom of the ordinary voter. "The citizens are refined, cultivated and very political," she informed an interviewer who had accused her of abandoning political debate itself. "I believe in the legitimacy of their participation." Yes, but then what? She's still listening, she says. In fact, her advisers say that she won't stake out any positions before June, when the party platform, which she is helping to shape, will be published. In the meantime, she fires off one round after another of thunderous blanks, vowing to deliver "just order" and "real equality" and "sustainable security." It's all rather abstract for the candidate of concreteness.
But then, maybe what the French want is not a new set of views but, as Royal plainspokenly puts it on her Web site, "another way of doing politics." And it's easy to recognize her political talents. At the sports-club dinner, she handed out every award, chatted with every bashful volleyball player and stayed until the bitter end, while her chief of staff anxiously fiddled with his BlackBerry. She showered her lovely smile on one and all. Afterward, in the car, I said that her political style was very American. "Oh, yes?" she said absently, thumbing through a pile of papers. "Is that a compliment?" I said that I had meant it as one. I asked if she admired American politicians.
"That I know of? No, not personally. But I'm going to meet Hillary Clinton in June."
In fact, the two briefly met in 1998, though it seems not to have left much of an impression on the Frenchwoman. They would, at least if they have a language in common, easily recognize themselves in each other. They are both tough-minded women, cultural icons known by first name only. They inspire deep loyalty and deep mistrust. And they want to be president. A few years from now, it could be Hillary and Ségolène sharing a joke at the G-8 conference. Whom are they laughing at? The old boys, of course.