The Hour of the Princess Ségolène Royal Could Soon Become France's Next President

For the first time in the history of France, a woman stands a chance of moving into the Elysée Palace. Socialist politician Ségolène Royal is benefiting from the weaknesses of her rivals, who have been handicapped by a controversial labor law that brought millions of students to the streets in protest.

With its neat side streets, sidewalks lined with flower pots, a bakery, two bistros and a hair salon, the town square of Neuville-de-Poitou, an hour's drive from the southwestern city of Poitiers, conveys an air of carefully tended tranquility. Stacks of fruit and vegetables, sheep cheese and links of sausages on the market square complete the picture.

On the outskirts of this bucolic little town, Ségolène Royal holds court in a building supply warehouse. Water drips into a 200-liter rain barrel next to a sale rack of rubber boots and winter coats.

In the presence of the mayor, local officials and a dozen skeptical farmers, Royal, the president of the Poitou-Charentes region, is calling on her constituents to conserve water. She has just launched a program dubbed "Operation 10,000 Rainwater Barrels," and now she's promoting the program with what would seem a rather traditional argument: "In the past, everyone had a pond or a cistern. Now we need collection barrels to help protect the environment."

At first glance, the appearance may seem a bit small potatoes for a woman with ambitions to capture the country's highest office. But it's just one example of what people here have dubbed the "Methode Royal," or Royal method, the candidate's skillful way of establishing connections between seemingly small issues and the big picture, in this case, the local drought and global climate change.

Until recently, the idea of having a female president would have been inconceivable in France. But popular Royal, 52, could very well succeed in becoming the first woman to lead the country following next spring's elections. One of the arguments in her favor is the conservative administration's ongoing problem with its "first-time employment contract" for young people entering the work force. President Jacques Chirac's authority is diminished, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has been publicly humiliated and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to use the situation to capitalize on his role as a mediator. The fact that the government withdrew the law last Friday and will now have to draft new legislation has hurt the entire conservative movement. This makes life easier for the opposition, and Royal is practically guaranteed an automatic boost to her popularity.

Despite her excellent prospects, Royal is an extremely unlikely contender for the country's highest office. She is the unmarried mother of two sons and two daughters. She has been a member of the Socialist Party (PS) since 1978, and yet she has never managed to put together her own team. She has spent years gathering experience in the Ministries of the Environment, Education, Family and Childhood and the Handicapped, and yet she was considered a political lightweight until only recently.

She also happens to have a personal handicap. Her life partner and the father of her children, Socialist Party leader François Hollande, is also a potential candidate to succeed current President Jacques Chirac. But when it comes to popularity, Royal has done more than outdistance her life partner -- in opinion polls she stands ahead of the entire old-guard Socialist competition, including former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, former Minister of Finance Dominique Strauss-Kahn and former Minister of Culture Jack Lang. Lionel Jospin, the losing candidate in the 2002 presidential election, looks old next to Royal.

Royal owes part of her surge in popularity to the malicious macho posturing of her jealous rivals. But ever since she began outpolling the current conservative administration's top candidates, Sarkozy and Villepin, most of the attacks have subsided -- especially among her political rivals.

Sarkozy has praised the Socialist as a "woman of quality," Villepin says he holds her in "high esteem," and even the president's wife has credited Royal with having that "certain something." "She could be a serious candidate, and she could even win," says Bernadette Chirac, adding that Royal's "little Socialist comrades won't make it easy for her, but it's time for women to come into their own."

Royal enters the fray with several advantages, including the fact that she embodies the hope of renewal and a long overdue generational change -- and that she comes across as young, fresh and unused. She also promises to fulfill a need for "rupture" -- a break with the past -- among the French on both the left and the right.

Royal is the fourth of eight children, a family her father, Jacques, a retired artillery colonel, ran with military strictness. If any of the boys rebelled, he promptly had his head shaved. The goal of Jacques' authoritarian approach was to mould his sons into faithful servants of France and his daughters into dutiful wives.

Ségolène broke free of her father's tyranny while at boarding school, and she earned her degree in economics and politics at the École nationale d'administration, or ENA, a prestigious school where many French senior government officials receive their training. She managed to spare herself the tedium of rising through the ranks in the French legal system when, in 1982 -- together with her friend Hollande -- she was discovered by Jacques Attali, the special advisor to then-president François Mitterrand.

The media quickly pounced on the "Princess," her nickname at the Elysée Palace, where she made headlines as a girlish beauty who would occasionally bring her toddler to work. President Mitterand was impressed by the beauty with the ponytail, and in 1988 he dispatched her to Departement Deux-Sèvres in France's rural southwest, where she won her first mandate as a member of parliament.

Royal owed her success as a member of parliament to the simple but effective idea that actions speak louder than words. She avoided the lofty heights of ideological discourse, preferring to roll up her sleeves and turn her attention to the more mundane world of goat cheese production. She energetically opposed European Union dictates requiring all cheese to be pasteurized. She made an appearance in the garden of the Elysée Palace wearing a blue farmers' outfit, complete with a bonnet and a cheese basket, in a stunt that drew ridicule from fellow party members but impressed local farmers and mesmerized photographers.

Royal was successful in her later ministerial roles, partly because she was so adept at merging her professional activities with the events of her private life, including pregnancy and giving birth. The approach meant that her political ascendancy was accompanied by a never-ending flood of public images from her family album -- Ségolène with her baby, Ségolène having breakfast, and so on.

Royal tries to bring together the best of two worlds, supporting emancipation while continuing to emphasize her femininity. She wants to be attractive but not seductive, a champion of women's rights but also a dedicated mother who enjoys her role as part of her family and household. It's an attitude that infuriates France's feminists, but Royal doesn't care.

She has won 10 out of 11 elections in 17 years. Thanks to her good relations with the Elysée Palace, the "Valkyrie of Deux-Sèvres" manages to pump subsidies from Paris and the EU into her region, leaving her political opponents' constituencies high and dry.

She now has the full support of her party. For the first time since the Socialists' traumatic defeat in 2002, when Socialist Prime Minister Jospin was defeated in the primary by right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Socialists have shed their heavy pessimism. Now, the left finally stands a chance at victory once again.

Royal's pragmatism -- her "we have to see what works and what doesn't" approach -- is effective, if only as a provocation, with those comrades who still have trouble burying their utopias.

Recently, as millions of Frenchmen protested against Prime Minister de Villepin's "first-time employment contract," Royal kept her comments on the uproar as neutral as possible, saying things like "it is critical that we be appreciative of work and effort once again." She has been cautious in expressing her views on students' involvement in the demonstrations: "Whenever the energy of youth is mobilized in a country for something other than development, it becomes a huge mess."

She is equally nonspecific when asked about her position on the country's persistently high unemployment, the hole in its state pension fund and the national deficit, or her opinions on crime, immigration and unrest in the suburbs. "I don't know everything, but I do know where the problems lie," says Royal, defending her reticence. "In the current phase, listening is very important."

But sentiments that critics would pounce upon as a sign of incompetence among her rivals are an expression of sincerity with Royal. "Our citizens aren't interested in yet another laundry list of unrealistic promises," says Jean-Luc Fulachier, the head of her administration in Poitiers. "The French are mainly searching for a credible personality."

"Ségolène is currently unbeatable," says Denis Leroy, who ran Royal's election campaign for years. He firmly believes that his favorite will prevail over the male competition at this autumns's party primary. "After all, the comrades want only one thing -- a candidate who can win."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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