French Elections Ségolène Royal Emerges As Early Star

Half a year before the candidates to succeed French President Jacques Chirac are officially chosen, France's campaign for president is already in full swing -- evidence of the French people's yearning for a new beginning. Socialist Ségolène Royal has already emerged as the clear star in the field of potential contenders.

By in Paris

Election favorite: French Socialist Party Deputy Segolene Royal has already pulled the rug out from under her political competitors on the major issues. 

Election favorite: French Socialist Party Deputy Segolene Royal has already pulled the rug out from under her political competitors on the major issues. 

A sense of informal sincerity pervades the pale yellow auditorium in the Renaissance Center in Oullins. About five dozen members of the Socialist Party (PS) have gathered in the town, located on the outskirts of the southeastern French city of Lyon, on this Saturday morning to officially welcome the newest members of the party's local chapter.

The new members' reasons for joining the party are as varied as their backgrounds. History student Tareq, 26, the son of North African immigrants, decided to join after the November riots in French suburbs. Stéphane, 33, an environmental engineer and the product of a socialist working class family, was intrigued by the opportunity to play a role in shaping the new program of basic principles. His wife Juliette, 32, on the other hand, is impressed by the PS's new star politician. "With Ségolène Royal," says the unemployed social worker, "we can beat the right wing."

Local party leader Joëlle Séchaud concludes the ritual for new members with an appeal. She believes that the coming elections could bring fundamental change to France, "and we need your help to make that happen," the 38-year-old German teacher says as she invites her newest comrades to join her for a traditional "glass of friendship."

At precisely the same time, Nicolas Sarkozy is giving a speech in Paris before a group of freshly recruited members of his conservative Union pour un mouvement populaire, or UMP party. The head of the UMP is receiving his guests in the opulent Gaveau concert hall, where he wastes little time on pleasantries. Sarkozy, also France's interior minister, is positioning himself as a patriot prepared to take a tough stance on crime and illegal immigration. He vehemently attacks the Socialists' just-announced campaign platform, calling it proof positive that his political rivals are "steaming ahead full-speed into the past."

Although the next presidential election is still a full 10 months away, the election campaign already feels as though it were about to enter its hottest phase. Despite the World Cup and the disappointing start for the French team ("les Bleus"), and despite the upcoming two-month summer break, party strategists and political experts have already shifted their propaganda machines into high gear.

In planning committees, PR and advertising consultants, sensing a renewed interest in politics nationwide, are busy fine-tuning TV ads and catchy slogans. Both the Socialists and the UMP have managed to almost double their membership rolls within a few months, partly because it's now possible to become a registered party member by phone, text message or Internet. All it takes is a few double-clicks.

As if the entire election were already at stake, UMP leader Sarkozy spends his days rushing from one appointment to the next. He appears to have a special preference for photo ops with police officers or firefighters. During his public appearances, orchestrated like extravagant patriotic rituals, Sarkozy routinely rages against the scourge of immigration and positions himself as the spokesman of an anxious middle class.

The Socialists are also taking precautions to avoid a repeat of the trauma of the 2002 presidential election, when Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, following a disastrous campaign, lost to right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round and was eliminated from the race. This time around the PS, whose members won't be voting for their candidate until the Nov. 16 party primary, faces a different problem, as half a dozen contenders vie for the top spot on the party's ticket.

But the fact that next year's vote, which will include both presidential and, one month later, parliamentary elections, is arousing so much interest today also shows that the French no longer feel any connection to their government -- and vice-versa.

French President Jacques Chirac (left) and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin are slowly fading from the political stage.

French President Jacques Chirac (left) and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin are slowly fading from the political stage.

President Jacques Chirac and some of his political allies seem disinterested and almost put-upon, as if it were wholly unreasonable to expect them to continue governing this country and its people. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who only six months ago had hoped to succeed Chirac, has descended into a vortex of scandals.

And the Socialists' top politicians -- an old boys' club of former cabinet ministers the media has dubbed the "elephants" -- convey neither enthusiasm nor visions.

Against this background of grey tones, an election is materializing that most Frenchmen hope will be a major turning point for the country, as the race for the presidency increasingly becomes an early showdown between the Socialists' star politician, Ségolène Royal, 52, and UMP leader Nicolas Sarkozy, 51.

Both embody a generational change, are calling for a revamping of French politics and come equipped with a biography that has taken them from difficult beginnings to political prominence. Sarkozy likes to remind voters of his days as a child of immigrants and Royal is quick to point out her rise to political stardom from exceedingly modest circumstances.

The reformers

Both candidates are also presenting themselves as morally upright reformers and as honest representatives of the people, untainted by cliques, corruption and the intricate web of relationships within the Paris elite, and untouched by the institutional machinery of the French republic. The two candidates are convinced that France, previously a bastion of opposition to reform, is finally ready to make up for its past mistakes.

But the image of the political outsider the two front-runners have sought to sell to voters is mostly an illusion. Both Sarkozy and Royal have been members of the establishment for decades. The UMP chief has been a member of parliament and served as both finance and interior minister. The Socialist, today president of the Poitou-Charentes region and a graduate of the École nationale d'administration (ENA), a training ground for future politicians, served as Minister of the Environment under former President Francois Mitterand and later headed the education and family ministries under Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

Nevertheless, the two political pros have somehow managed to come across, at least in the eyes of the public, as unsullied leaders. Given France's current host of problems -- chronically high unemployment, an oppressive national debt burden of more than €1 trillion euros and a half-hearted approach to reform that usually ends in lazy compromises -- Royal and Sarkozy have awakened hopes for a new beginning.

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has called for a "break" with inherited French structures and traditions.

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has called for a "break" with inherited French structures and traditions.

Capitalizing on this public mood, the UMP leader has unabashedly called for a "break" with inherited structures and traditions, even a revamping of the constitution. The Socialist, for her part, favors a model of "participatory democracy" meant to give citizens the power to become involved in government and exert their influence more directly.

Dogmatists within their own parties are probably the only ones who are troubled by Sarkozy's and Royal's propensity to discard ideological dead weight. Sixty-one percent of Frenchmen are unable to discern any difference between the two major political camps, and 67 percent even favor a German-style grand coalition as a way to put an end to ongoing political divisions.

An unorthodox contender

But despite public opinion, such a union between right and left is unlikely to materialize, because Royal is currently benefiting from this pragmatic move toward the center. Once dismissed as the "media's candidate," Royal, after remaining cautiously reserved for a period of time, has since developed into a true vote-getter for her party -- first by intelligently portraying herself as a female outsider and then as a champion of order, authority and family with conservative values. By deliberating crossing ideological party lines, Royal has not only outpaced the male competition within her own party, but also the UMP's leading candidate.

The PS's unorthodox female contender initially offended her own party hierarchy by praising the economic policies of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Then she pointed out the negative consequences of the 35-hour work week, an institution every other PS candidate has consistently praised as an untouchable achievement of the Socialists.

Finally, Royal surprised the public with yet another about-face. A mother of four, she argued that gays and lesbians should be entitled to enter into unions similar to marriage, complete with all the rights enjoyed by married couples -- including adoption.

But Royal smashed her biggest taboo yet during a visit to Paris suburb Bondy, one of the centers of urban conflict euphemistically dubbed "sensitive neighborhoods. After criticizing the government's poor showing on security matters, she called for "military supervision" for first-time offenders over 16 years of age. She also argued that family welfare subsidies should no longer be as accessible for low-income parents and recommended a program of mandatory civil service for all young people.

Unions and student representatives railing against the PS's "elephants" called Royal's words a "betrayal of leftist values. "We already have a Sarkozy, and we don't need another one," said former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Even François Hollande, the head of the PS and Royal's life partner, couldn't resist referring to some of Royal's statements as "idiotic."

But the uproar among the party leadership was short-lived. The majority of Frenchmen -- leftist voters and Socialist party members included -- applauded Royal's radical proposals. Indeed, the politician demonstrated, once again, her adeptness at playing to popular issues. "The originality of her proposals consists in her efforts to bring the Socialist Party to its knees," wrote the conservative Figaro. The leftist candidate has managed to simply hijack the issues of order and security, previously Sarkozy's rallying cries.

The interior minister was wholly unprepared for his adversary's unexpected moves. The hardliner, who had fashioned the war on crime into the cornerstone of his bid to move into the Elysée Palace, now finds himself forced to look on helplessly as the PS's top candidate reaps the political capital generated by his own campaign promises. Retreating into irony is practically his only recourse. "Just keep on going," said a sarcastic Sarkozy, "you're on the right track."

Although the Socialist leadership realizes that its right-wing opponent has been weakened, it has been careful to keep its enthusiasm in check, fearful that no one will be able to stop Royal's seemingly steady march to victory. But the PS's base, on the other hand, sees its preferred candidate moving one step closer to the presidency. History student Tareq, at the party's local office in Oullins, says he can very well imagine "a woman assuming the highest office in the Republic. Now that would be something."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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