Who's That Girl? Could a Rising Star of the French Socialist Party Become the First Woman President of France?

Article excerpt

Byline: Eric Pape

French politics has always been a manly world, no place more so than the Elysee Palace. Almost forever, it seems, France's presidents have been cut from similar cloth, distinguished by a shared hauteur if not grandeur, self-imagined or otherwise. De Gaulle comes immediately to mind. So do Mitterrand and Chirac. Yet as the latter's star continues to wane among the French populace, a new figure has burst upon the scene. Her name: Segolene Royal. Though very much not a man, this elegant version of the sensible soccer mom could well become France's next president.

We are 14 months from France's presidential election--almost an eternity in a nation notorious for its fickle politics. But make no mistake: something is afoot in France, and it bears watching. With due caveats, you might even think of it as revolution . Consider: a disillusioned electorate, recent surveys show, is profoundly fed up with politicians who speak eloquently but say little. They are tired of leaders who affect to lead by doctoring policies that seldom improve people's lives. A large majority of the French hope for what they call national rejuvenation.

They want a new-generation president who is honest and in touch with their daily lives, not some grand international visionary. And while it might be impossible for a single person to embody all these inchoate yearnings, it's clear that these days Royal--a rising star of the French Socialist Party--comes closer than any. A Feb. 3 poll for the first time showed her defeating longtime conservative front runner Nicolas Sarkozy in a presidential runoff, 51 percent to 49 percent. (Just weeks earlier, Sarkozy was 10 points ahead.) French marketing consultant Clotaire Rappaille sums up the euphoria: "She can help France live up to its history. We need politics to advance and to be sexy again. This is the return of the great French woman!"

Never mind, again, that France hasn't had a great female leader in living memory, and perhaps not since Joan of Arc. Yet scarcely a day passes without some new sign of Royal's growing cachet. It isn't customary for politicians of any stripe to make the covers of the conservative Le Figaro, the lefty Liberation and the glossy women's magazine Elle within a matter of weeks--but last month Royal did just that. Last week the annual political Who's Who of France, Trombinoscope, named her the "political revelation of the year." Among bickering fellow Socialists, party standard-bearer Lionel Jospin comes closest to her in popularity--and he trails by 20 percentage points. As for opposition-party rivals, the anointed favorite of President Jacques Chirac, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, scores a meager 38 percent, while Chirac himself enjoys the confidence of only 21 percent of French voters.

Royal's CV offers a checklist of what France seems to want. Born in Dakar, Senegal, into a French military family, she studied at the prestigious ENA finishing school, where she met her life partner, Socialist Party chief Francois Hollande. After graduating in 1980, as the Socialists' fortunes rose, both were named as young advisers to incoming President Francois Mitterrand. Royal later served in Parliament and headed three government ministries--School Education, Environment, and Family and Childhood--tasked with the daily concerns of ordinary people. As the daughter of a military man, Royal is that rare Socialist who sounds credible when talking about law and order, while retaining the compassion of a good Socialist.

As a working mother of four in a country of working mothers, she also speaks from the heart against television violence, pornography, pedophilia and teen pregnancy. (Perhaps her most famous action as minister involved introducing day-after abortion pills into junior high and high schools.) She is that rare Parisian politician with a natural talent for crossing France's traditional left-right ideological divide and connecting to outlying cities and towns. …