France’s Royal relishes the role of underdog

Times Staff Writer

Here is what has been said about Segolene Royal, the first woman with a real chance to be president of France:

She is cold, authoritarian and a bully. She’s ambitious yet a lightweight without the gravitas to head a nuclear state. She is a “conduit without content,” nicknamed Egolene, the aspiring Joan of Arc.

And that is from her friends on the left.

Even before her opponent on the right, Nicolas Sarkozy, could take her on, the leaders of Royal’s Socialist Party were maligning her. On the eve of the first round of voting last month, two Socialist “elephants,” as the barons of her party are called, stood behind Royal at a speech and could be heard snickering.

But being attacked by the elites and establishment isn’t the worst thing to happen to a candidate -- especially to a woman who projects herself as the embodiment of change in a France troubled by a stalled economy and social unrest.

In these final days of the campaign, most polls have Sarkozy beating her by a slim margin, but the 53-year-old French colonel’s daughter with the radiant smile has always done best as an underdog, an image she actively cultivates as a woman in a political world dominated by men.


Her program -- such as it is -- is a complicated amalgam of left ($35 billion in new state spending), right (mandatory military service for delinquents) and center (students would be paid, but must tutor).

Her message is simpler: Politics has to be flexible, and with a brave and practical mother running the country, everything will be fine.

She has no big historical vision, no cohesive economic program to fit on bumper stickers. What she has is an image that breaks with the past.

“There is a big gap between the political elite and the French people, and Segolene Royal knows how to close that gap,” said Jean-Pierre Bel, a Socialist Party leader who wasn’t an initial fan but has become a convert. “She’s very simple, very real. She touches people.”

In speeches, Royal often acknowledges her willingness to go it alone with the public. “I am a free woman the way you are a free people.”

As if words could rouse the country, she bathes her listeners in optimism: She would “conciliate” and “respect,” “build compromises” and “create social dialogue.” She laments the prospect of a “brutal” France, a not-so-subtle strike at Sarkozy’s sometimes harsh rhetoric.

Last week when a television journalist tried to trip her up with a technical question about her often-vague economic policies, she gave a curt response as if she couldn’t be bothered and went on to address viewers directly: “I’m a concrete practical woman who believes in the intelligence of people.”

Her attempt at private communication with audiences was never as evident as when she was asked about Sarkozy’s best quality. “He knows everything,” she said with just a trace of a smile on her face. Hearing this, 400 young entrepreneurs, watching her on a giant screen in the Marais district of Paris, began hooting and applauding.

“She gets it,” said Mehdi Benhabri, who works in the mayor’s office. “She tells it to us straight. She uplifts us.”

The French are famously gloomy and apparently need uplifting these days. Last week, a poll showed that Germans, Italians and Spaniards all had better impressions of France and its people than the French have of their country and themselves.

Royal seeks to counter that gloom with what several people that night in the Marais described as her “smiling tenacity.”

That tenacity has deep roots. She was born in Dakar, Senegal, and raised in a family of three girls and five boys in a small French village. (She spent a summer in Ireland as a nanny and reportedly spoke excellent English.)

As a teen, Marie-Segolene dropped the Marie as one of many small acts of rebellion against a strict Roman Catholic upbringing designed by her father, Jacques, who by her account treated daughters like lesser beings.

When her parents divorced, it was Segolene, then a 19-year-old law student, who dragged Jacques to court to force him to pay support and for his children’s education. He died at age 60 of lung cancer, but not before losing the suit.

Segolene proved the colonel wrong about the capabilities of women when she went to study in the capital, first at a leading university, the Institute for Political Studies in Paris (“Sciences Po”), and later at the ultimate school for the French political elite, the National School of Administration, or ENA.

There, she met the usual crop of future CEOs and politicians, as well as Francois Hollande. Three decades later, the two remain partners, never married (by her choice), but the parents of four children, ages 15 to 23.

At ENA it was Hollande, not Royal, who classmates assumed was destined for greatness. Royal was quieter, people say, but ambitious in her own way. By their early 40s, she was on her third post as a government minister and Hollande was chairman of the Socialist Party.

“She was always, frankly, in the shadow of [Hollande] until one day she said, ‘OK, it’s finally me,’ ” says Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of Doctors Without Borders, who worked with her when they both held Cabinet posts. (He found her “rigid, not collegial” but insists she’s been “transformed by the competition.”)

Socialist leader Bel recalled a meeting in 1997 to discuss which party member would lead in the National Assembly. Royal said she wanted the job. Hollande, according to Bel, said, “No, it isn’t the right time -- the position was meant for someone else,” but she made a bid anyway. She lost, but from then on, Bel said, “We knew we’d hear from her.”

In 2004, Royal ran against a personal friend of the prime minister to become the only female head of a region -- similar to a U.S. governorship. A year later she announced in an article in the apolitical magazine Paris Match that she was running for president. Bel was in the Senate the day it was published. “People were amused, disbelieving, mocking, even irritated.... They thought she was a fad,” he said.

Royal had concentrated on issues that seemed marginal in Paris salons -- where economic theories and the future of Europe are paramount; instead, Royal was troubled by school hazing and the effect of television violence on children and went on daytime TV to discuss it.

“Her vocabulary isn’t our vocabulary -- not because she’s a woman but because she’s more direct,” said Bel, explaining that traditional politicians might talk of diminished “purchasing power” while she worried about “living being expensive.”

Shortly before the Socialists met in November to pick a presidential candidate, the elephants unwisely attacked Royal in sexist terms. One cracked that if both she and Hollande campaigned, “Who will stay home and take care of the children?”

Even in a country where women didn’t get the vote until after World War II and parties prefer to pay fines rather than meet quotas for female representatives, the attacks didn’t go down well. Royal used them to her advantage and breezed to the nomination.

It has certainly helped that she is beautiful in the unstudied way of a classic French woman who made every decision about her appearance decades ago. With her long brown hair curled at the ends and perfect skin, she always looks put-together in short fitted jackets and flattering skirts, but never lacquered in the way of American politicians.

At a town hall-type meeting during the primaries, a man prefaced a question by saying Royal was even more beautiful in person than in photos. “You don’t look so bad yourself,” she said. The crowd loved it.

Her staff understands her effect -- the alchemy of good looks and toughness. Though her website,, or “wishes for the future,” with its interactivity, has been fundamental to the creation of her 100-point platform, it was nothing without Royal live on video, almost daily.

Her aides and reporters who have followed her campaign describe her as warmly relentless: She can be blunt but polite about what has to be done; she’ll listen to advice but mostly keeps her own counsel. She is not above attending to the smallest details -- rewriting her speeches, picking poster photos, even switching off lights.

An aide describes her marching into his office at 3 a.m. after she noticed all the lights on. Together they turned off every light until they found themselves in the dark. After an awkward pause, she turned on a few so they could find their way out.

What all this says about how Royal would govern is unclear. What is known is that if she wins Sunday, she will have to find people to trust, in and outside her party, to build a governing coalition.

Gauthier Caron-Thibault, a top aide in the Paris mayor’s office, has worked hard in Royal’s ground forces, but is not a strong believer. He can’t identify one or two main concepts that emerged from her leadership. Except, that with her unconventional style, she has put herself at the center of what many call a “serene revolution.”

“But can you tell me concretely what a ‘serene revolution’ looks like?” he said.

With her something-for-everybody politics, she has made people feel that each of their personal concerns can be answered, instead of creating a sense of collective good or movement, he said.

“I’m afraid,” Caron-Thibault said, “that if she loses, she’ll be all that remains.”


Special correspondent Devorah Lauter contributed to this report.