How do you compete with mom, flag, and apple pie?
That's the American version of the question facing France's
conservatives, now that Segolene Royal has emerged as the Socialist
Party's candidate for president in 2007.
Ms. Royal, who trounced two male opponents in the Socialist
primary last Thursday to become the first woman to represent a major
party in a national campaign, embodies just about every iconic
virtue that French culture holds dear.
She is a mother - of four. She is a graduate of the Ecole
Nationale d'Administration, the exclusive academy that has forged
France's government elite for the past half-century. She is the
daughter and granddaughter of career military men. She was raised in
a strict Catholic home.
She is also ladylike, attractive, and - to top it all off - fond
of dressing all in white.
"The image is of purity, almost religious, like Joan of Arc,"
says Marc Abeles, a social anthropologist in Paris who has studied
the rituals of French politics for years. "This is a formidable
image to present to voters, especially to those in the center-
That appeal to the center-right could be the key to victory for
Royal, whose chief opponent in the April 22 presidential election is
likely to be Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the tenacious leader
of the main right-wing party Union for the Progressive Movement
But with opinion polls consistently showing "Sego" and "Sarko"
running neck and neck, the challenge for both candidates will be to
find ways of attracting traditionally fickle voters on the far ends
of the political spectrum without offending wavering centrists.
Already, both Royal and Sarkozy present themselves as crusading
agents of change, order, and decentralization. They have expressed
similarly tough views on how to address core concerns like crime and
Royal has even flirted with free-market ideas and expressed
admiration for Britain's Tony Blair, positioning herself -
ironically - closer to Sarkozy than to the ideological Old Guard of
the Socialist Party, if only slightly.
One of the tasks facing Royal and Sarkozy in the five months of
campaigning to come will be to differentiate their views and
proposals. Until the contrasts become clearer, image could count for
Sarkozy's scrappy law-and-order reputation has developed in the
public eye for many years and can't be changed much, while Ms. Royal
still has a chance to refine her profile, according to Mr. Abeles.
"Segolene Royal, with her religious family background and all,
may incarnate the values of purity and that will reassure some on
the right," he said. "But she can't go too far with that or she will
turn off the secular middle class, which is also an important voting
Both candidates face significant dissension in their own ranks
and party loyalty is far from absolute in any case. …