Into the closed, gray, and overwhelmingly male world of French
politics, a bombshell has dropped.
Topping the opinion polls for next year's presidential elections
is a chic, 52-year-old mother of four who is bringing a whirlwind of
fresh air to the ruling class in Paris and promising a new style of
politics to voters tired of their scandal-ridden leaders.
Segolene Royal, bidding to be the Socialist party's presidential
candidate, has stirred up almost as much opposition from fellow
Socialist leaders as she has among the governing party. But she has
also struck a chord with ordinary people that could resound all the
way to the Elysee Palace.
Ms. Royal "is different," says Stephane Rozes, director of French
polling group l'Institut CSA. "She doesn't seem trapped by doctrinal
questions and people believe she addresses their problems."
To start with, she listens - a rare trait among French
politicians whose lofty distance from everyday affairs is one reason
why 76 percent of voters distrust them, according to a recent poll.
Royal has made her website a forum for "internauts" to express their
opinions on a range of issues, and she is incorporating the ideas
she likes best in the online book she is publishing chapter by
chapter to set out her platform.
"That's what modern politics is," she said in a recent radio
interview. "It is citizens coming to grips with a vision of society,
rolling up their sleeves, and trying to fulfill it."
Nor is she afraid to veer away from traditional Socialist
policies. Last month, she struck out at the 35-hour workweek, the
Socialist party's proudest achievement of the past decade. She also
raised howls of criticism from her party colleagues by proposing
that delinquent youths be sent to military boot camp, and that their
parents be sent to parenting school.
"We need a return to the heavy hand," she declared, to "firmly
reestablish a just order and long-lasting security." This is the
sort of language used by the tough-talking Interior Minister Nicolas
Sarkozy, the likely presidential candidate for the center-right UMP
But while Royal's rhetoric may make her the only leftist
politician capable of beating Sarkozy, it has also earned her a
reputation for being authoritarian - a tendency perhaps inherited
from her military father. She seems to have turned that trait into
an advantage, however, with her views on law and order. The
Socialists lost the last elections largely because they were seen as
soft on that front, and that issue has exploded onto the political
scene again following the riots that shook Paris suburbs last fall.
Royal's foray into unfamiliar territory for a Socialist has paid
off. Sixty-nine percent of the electorate supported the boot camp
But this sort of heresy has raised the hackles of traditional
party leaders, known as "elephants." (The elegant and slim Royal
pointedly refers to herself as a "gazelle.") But it offers the
prospect that Royal might modernize the French Socialist party a la
Tony Blair and his reform of the British Labour Party.
The "Segolene effect" may already be taking hold: since March,
her party's membership has grown 60 percent and attracted more women
than usual. …