This isn't the time for Ségolène Royal to be taking a break or a vacation, no matter how well earned. To celebrate her dazzling victory in the battle for the nomination as the French Socialist Party's (PS) presidential candidate and her brief, celebratory address to the nation, Royal spent all of one weekend with friends and family. In her address, the candidate, a bit rashly perhaps, promptly began using the royal "we," saying that "we" would soon welcome her back "into the heart of the socialist project."
Socialist presidential candidate Royal: "Madonna of the opinion polls"Foto: AP
The woman France-Soir has called "Tsunami Royal" quickly switched back into campaign mode and embarked on a whirlwind tour of the country, beginning with appearances in the Paris region, followed by excursions into the countryside and then a trip abroad to the volatile Middle East, where she was visiting Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories this week. Madame Royal has only one goal in mind. She plans to win the presidential election on April 22, 2007 (and a likely runoff election on May 6), which would mean trouncing her main opponent, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, and move into the Elysée Palace as France's first female president.
The path to the presidency has already been marked out in anticipation of a solo performance for the current front-runner. Royal plans to continue her campaign appearances until the end of January as she completes a tour she calls, with a healthy dose of political correctness, a "participatory election campaign." She plans to listen intently to the soul of the people, even in the most remote places, on her very own Tour de France, a tour Madame Royal hopes will fill her political box of tricks with "new ideas." What the candidate calls the "collective intelligence of the people" will eventually translate into her campaign manifesto -- at least if Royal has her way.
The PS candidate doesn't seem to care much that her party already has its own campaign platform. For Ségolène Royal, 53, the platform, a collection of compromises carefully crafted by party leaders over a period of several months, is no bible and certainly "no little red book."
She cultivates her distaste for the party machine, despises the stuffiness of a party traditionally dominated by good old boys and ignores the hostile attacks of her restrained chastened competitors. Politically speaking, she doesn't even display much interest in François Hollande, the leader of the PS and her life partner, leaving Hollande with little choice but to publicly express his hope that the "collective strength" of the party will ally itself with Madame's "plan."
It's quite possible that she doesn't even want to align herself too closely with the party rank and file in the first place. So far Royal has carefully cultivated her image as an outsider, an image that has become as much a part of the mother of four as the conservative, white outfit she favors. Indeed, her outfit has become a symbol of her ideological independence and her freedom from dogmatic dead weight. She stands completely alone, a position she neither can nor wishes to change.
But Royal's current persona is nothing but show. The woman Le Monde has called the "Madonna of the opinion polls" may not have the support of all in the PS's old guard, but Royal, who came of age in the party and has been a member for 28 years, is more than just a tough, experienced politician. While eschewing party support, she has developed her very own machine of professional advisors, including media experts, pollsters, image specialists and speechwriters -- a team that has skillfully staged her meteoric rise to power. They call it the System Ségolène. Royal has since expanded her team from an initial core group of hardly more than a dozen friends and former fellow students, which would meet in the Royal family home in Boulogne-Billancourt outside Paris, to a wide-reaching network.
Academics, former politicians and youthful technocrats are the driving force behind the Royal campaign. Her so-called resource personnel consists of more than 250 members, evidence that the term expert is taboo for this champion of "collective intelligence." Trade unionists, industrialists and scientists produce dossiers, background documents and talking points, sometimes at very short notice.
A Web site, blogs and "Ségolène clubs" around the world
The team, which is the size of a small company, is managed through the candidate's official Web site, "Desirs d'avenir," loosely translated as "Aspirations for the Future." The now-familiar site initially served merely as a collecting point for campaign material, but the virtual editorial office has since been transformed into a sort of mission control with more than 40 employees who manage access to 80 other Ségolène links and blogs and coordinate contacts with "Ségolène clubs" throughout the country. There are more than 400 of these groups, as well as affiliated groups in London, Brussels and Singapore.
The entire effort is tightly controlled by a handful of "kingmakers," who are as discreet as they are effective.
Jean-Luc Fulachier is one of them. Royal has the "Grand Vizier" of the Poitou-Charentes region to thank for crafting her reputation as a pragmatic doer. With his massive frame, the 43-year-old could easily be mistaken for a simple fisherman or farmer. But first impressions are deceptive. Fulachier, a graduate of the elite post-graduate college Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA) worked for 17 years as a high-ranking economic specialist for the government managing social budgets worth millions, before leaving his prestigious job in Paris in 2004. Royal, who had just been elected president of the region, appointed Fulachier, her former chief of staff when she was vice-minister of family and childhood, to the position of administrative director in her administration.
Fulachier has approached his job in Poitou-Charentes as if he were working in a laboratory, reviewing his boss's ideas to determine whether they can be translated into practice. Solar roof panels for schools? Free drivers' licenses for young tradesmen? Subsidies for rain water systems? Book coupons for school children? Most of Royal's ideas have been implemented in Poitou-Charentes.
The skill of an educator
Fulachier, an economist by trade, has the following take on Royal's hands-on approach and her aversion to theory: "Ségolène works in a direct way. She sees a need for action and demands solutions." Royal runs her region with the skill of an educator, while Fulachier does the prompting. "We make the suggestions, and then they are revised and put into practice as part of a dialogue among citizens, associations and the parliament." Fulachier is motivated by the relative ease with which plans can be turned into practice in the regional government. When he worked in Paris, he was often frustrated by the way reports would become stuck in the mechanics of bureaucracy. But Fulachier also knows why running a province is easier than governing a country. The special position of a regional president makes life easier for her staff. "The office combines the powers of a head of state, prime minister and speaker of parliament. Here we have no hierarchy above us," says Fulachier, "here we assume complete responsibility."
Her local successes are the inspiration for the candidate's ideas when it comes to running a government that remains close to the public. The woman in charge of making sure that "participative democracy" functions is Sophie Bouchet-Petersen. The petite Parisian is both an energetic producer of ideas and the intellectual heavyweight in Team Royal.
Despite her official title of "special advisor," the chain-smoking Bouchet-Petersen doesn't even have her own office. She runs the campaign from her mobile phone and her apartment next to Porte St. Martin in downtown Paris. The woman Paris Match has described as having the capacity of a "mainframe" computer has been a close friend of Royal for more than two decades and is considered the brain behind the campaign.
Is she the campaign's "grey eminence?" Bouchet-Petersen, 57, sharply disagrees with this assessment. "Ségolène doesn't need any intellectual hand-holding. She is an independent woman and she would not permit it. I collect ideas and experiences, read research reports, sort, reflect, evaluate and write speeches." She does admit that this makes her a member of the candidate's "inner circle."
That's a vast understatement. The two women have known each other since she began her political career as a member of the staff of former President François Mitterrand. After spending 11 years as an agitator for the Revolutionary Communist League, Bouchet-Petersen discarded her Trotskyist convictions when she secured a position at the Elysée Palace in 1983.
She noticed a young, unconventional colleague there who would unabashedly relate her discussions with taxi drivers and milk deliverymen to senior officials. "Despite having studied at the university for civil servants," says Bouchet-Petersen, "Ségolène was not a typical product of the ENA. She marched to her own drummer."
Sophie and Ségolène quickly become friends. While Royal embarked on a career as a cabinet minister, member of parliament and regional president, her friend remained her principal academic contact. "I provided her with academic papers and articles and brought interesting people from the academic world to her house once a week," says Bouchet-Petersen. "Ségolène would sit there, listening attentively, and would spend one or two hours scribbling notes on a pad of paper."
As Royal's political star began to rise, she continued to use the same approach to develop almost all of her concepts, which included ideas on the role of families, proposals on the structuring of kindergartens and citizen participation in government through committees.
The wired candidate
The nature of their relationship has continued almost unchanged to this day, although Bouchet-Petersen has had to change with the times by learning how to use text messaging and e-mail. "Ségolène operates almost exclusively by mobile phone," says Bouchet-Petersen, "I had my daughters teach me how to use a digital notebook. Indeed, the Royal campaign's value-oriented mantras were all developed as part of this electronic dialogue: "Fair Order," "Collective Intelligence," "Decentralized Democracy."
Royal's confidante insists that these slogans are not based on short-term campaign tactics, but are instead derived from convictions that have taken years to mature. "Ségolène has a vision," says Bouchet-Petersen, defending her candidate against the widespread accusation that she lacks depth. "She envisions a changing France, one in which the classic differences between left and right are no longer significant, in which constantly sacrificing freedom for security becomes irrelevant, in which the right lays claim to its monopoly on economic competence and the left its monopoly on generous redistribution of wealth."
These "old differences" are passé for Ségolène's alter ego. Nowadays people want security as much as solidarity, freedom as much as stability," she says, her words sounding as if they were coming out of Royal's mouth. "Those who insist on sticking to only one side of the equation are living in the wrong age."
Arnaud Montebourg also believes that the candidate will be able to put her aims into practice. The 44-year-old socialist is in charge of producing and staging the ideas Bouchet-Petersen dreams up behind the scenes. Montebourg enjoys a special position in Team Royal. Though routinely mocked as a "pretty boy" and a "man with élan" by female campaign workers, Montebourg, a member of the French parliament, has proven himself indispensable for his party connections and his sharp-tongued eloquence. The media-savvy Montebourg serves as a direct connection to the left wing of the PS and is supposed to ensure that the French left will be able to vote for Royal in good conscience.
"Ségolène's playboy" seems slightly out of place among red-cheeked fellow party members in Burgundy. But the local comrades meeting at the library on a late afternoon in the small town of Rancy (population 532) greeted the PS celebrity who had come from the capital with handshakes and hearty pats on the back.
Indeed, the locals have little reason to treat Montebourg with anything but hospitality. He has spent the last nine years commuting between Paris and Mâcon and feels completely at home in the lush countryside of Burgundy. Despite his intellectual background, Montebourg is adept at representing the interests of chicken breeders, craftsmen and grain farmers. Sitting in the kitchen of his restored farmhouse, he extols the virtues of the Bresse chicken, which he insists has the most tender meat and is even "resistant against the bird flu." But Montebourg, who has made a name for himself as a constitutional reformer, is really more at home in the television studios of the French capital. The founder of a group called "Renewal Now," Montebourg is among the socialists' most flamboyant young stars.
He acquired his prominent position on Ségolène Royal's campaign team when, after prolonged hesitation, he brought his wing of the party into the candidate's camp and invited her to attend the Socialists' traditional rendezvous, the "Festival of the Rose," in Frangy-en-Bresse in late August. Her appearance turned out to be a smashing success and helped Royal capture broad support within the party's base.
Since then Montebourg has acted as the engine of reform in the Royal camp. "So far Ségolène has asked for my support when it comes to European issues," says Montebourg. "I provide a critique, ideas and contributions to her speeches on strategic matters."
Through his prominent role, Montebourg manages to inject leftist ideas into the candidate's discourse. "Ségolène is neither to the right nor fiscally liberal," says Montebourg, who now defends Royal after long dismissing her as an ideological deviant. "She wants pressure on the market, intervention and a tamed capitalism."
She also wants more power for the parliament, a truly independent judiciary, less bureaucracy and term limits. "With these positions," says Montebourg, a lawyer by trade, "Ségolène finds broad support among leftists. And with her ideas on the environment and fair trade she will gain the support of the Greens and opponents of globalization."
The reform-minded Montebourg especially values the candidate's strong will. He believes that she was "underestimated far too long, only because she wears a skirt."
Montebourg, who had harbored his own ambitions to run for president earlier this year, is now fully behind Ségolène Royal's success. "We are at the beginning of a gentle revolution."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan