Liberté, Égalité, Sororité

Months after Germany elected its first woman Chancellor and 27 years after Britain elected Margaret Thatcher, France's Ségolène Royal is tipped to become the country's first woman President - quite amazing considering that women only got the vote in 1948 in this chauvinistic republic.

Liberté, Égalité, Sororité
By William Langley
(Filed: 12/02/2006)

On a stage slippery with the blood of ambition, two startlingly different French presidential candidates struggle for supremacy.

On one side pirouettes the figure of Nicholas Sarkozy, the diminutive, headline-hogging Right-winger, while striding in from the Left last week came Ségolène Royal, a tall, glamorous, 52-year-old tipped by many to be the resoundingly chauvinistic republic's first female president.

Ségolène Royal

In a place as desperate for renewal as modern France - its voice in the world diminished, its economy depleted, its social landscape fractured by ethnic discord - the rise of Mme Royal has caused a sensation.

Although, like her rival, she has yet to declare her candidacy formally, the dark and smoky political salons of Paris were buzzing last week with excited talk of "le phénomène Sego". "If she believes she can win - and she does - she will certainly stand," said Daniel Bernard, a journalist whose sympathetic biography Madame Royal has become a runaway bestseller.

With her glossy coiffure and natural elegance, Mme Royal is the first Frenchwoman to earn a sniff of real power since the disastrous prime ministerial interlude of Edith Cresson in the early 1990s.

Such ignominy did Mme Cresson heap upon the office - achieving, in the process, a staggering disapproval rating of 87 per cent - that many analysts doubted whether the country would allow another woman in a top job for generations.

But although Mme Royal comes from the same over-educated, administrative class background that produced Mme Cresson, she is a far more engaging, sophisticated, and, therefore, plausible prospect for the Elysée Palace than any woman before her.

Disdainful of the boutique Leftism and Anglophobia that pervades the elite of the French Socialist Party, she speaks up for social conservatism, with its focus on family and community values, and has praised the achievements of Tony Blair's Britain. "I think Blair has been unfairly caricatured in France," she said recently.

"It doesn't bother me to adhere to some of his ideas."

Polls show her to be streets ahead of all other Socialist candidates - including her long-time (and, many say, long-suffering) live-in boyfriend, François Hollande, the party chairman.

An erudite functionary with the personality of bread mould, M Hollande, 51, was reportedly aghast to read of her presidential ambitions in an interview she gave to Paris Match, and the atmosphere in the couple's grand apartment off the Avenue de Breteuil turned icy.

M Hollande, who has made no secret of wanting the job himself, huffily told reporters that his partner's declaration, "was, frankly, not a declaration", but last week appeared to have accepted that the momentum behind her had become unstoppable.

"If the voters want her," he said, "it would be foolish for me to stand in her way." But Mme Royal's real opposition is most visible in the shape of M Sarkozy, the pugnacious populist currently riding a wave of public approval for his barnstorming rhetoric during the riots that swept immigrant ghettos late last year.

It also lies more subtly in the French psyche, which was uncomfortable with female politicians even before Mme Cresson's tenancy of Matignon, the prime ministerial residence.

The Assemblée Nationale has only 71 women MPs out of a total of 577 (Britain has 126 out of 645), making it 74th in the global table of female political representation, behind even Afghanistan. French women had to wait until the end of the Second World War to be given the vote - 10 years after Turkey.

Even those women who have risen to high office (notably the fragrant and couture-caked "Mitterrand Muses" who enthralled the nation during the late president's reign) were suspected of owing their promotion to attributes other than competence.

Political historians have struggled to explain why a country so socially progressive in other ways continues to have such difficulty in accepting the notion of powerful women.

Some believe that the Revolution of 1789 destroyed what had been a traditionally matriarchal system. "I must remark on a particular effect of the Revolution," wrote Arthur Young, the celebrated English chronicler of revolutionary times.

"Namely that that enormous power of the female sex has been lessened, and nearly annihilated. Before, women were involved in everything and governed everything, and now their reign is over."

Perhaps not for much longer. The election is 14 months away, the political landscape volatile, the electorate spooked by a sense that the country's problems are so deep and numerous as to be beyond remedy. In this anxious climate, the surge of support for Mme Royal, suggests that voters are ready to consider options far more daring than those they might contemplate in normal times.

Her rocket-powered rise up the polls - at a time when the Socialist mainstream remains securely out of favour - speaks for the personal popularity of a woman around whom the perceived national virtues of independence, egalitarianism and glamour appear to coalesce. "She can help France to live up to its history," says Clotaire Rappaille, a marketing consultant.

"We need politics to advance and to be sexy again. This is the return of the great French woman!" It reflects, too, an international trend that has recently seen a wave of women politicians brought to power - Angela Merkel in Germany, Michelle Bachelet in Chile and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia.

Mme Royal, whose aristocratic first name was bequeathed by an obscure 8th century saint, was born in Senegal, one of eight children of a French army officer. A bright student, she attended the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA) - the Sandhurst of France's ruling class - where, in an echo of the Clintons' student romance, she first met M Hollande. Their failure to marry, despite spending 30 years and having four children together, has long been a source of rumour. Mme Royal recently threatened to sue a newspaper which suggested it was to circumvent rules preventing husbands and wives sitting as MPs.

"We used to call her the barefoot énarque [a faintly derogatory term for graduates of ENA]" says a Paris contemporary. "They were a stiff set, not like the Sorbonne students, and she was particularly unconventional."

Some saw her early radicalism as a reaction against the views of her father, an arch-conservative in the colonial era tradition. Upon joining the Socialist Party in the late 1970s, she came under the guidance of François Mitterrand and, although never one of the lavishly favoured muses, was steered into a series of increasingly important jobs, mostly in the education and health ministries where her stands against television violence, pornography and teenage pregnancy first brought her to prominence, and earned her a strong following among women voters.

The death of M Mitterrand followed by the largely accidental rise to the Socialist leadership of Lionel Jospin, a wiry-haired non-entity of few discernable views, stalled her progress, but two years ago she bounced back by winning the local presidency of the Poitou-Charente region which she has turned into a launch pad for her ill-concealed ambitions.

Yet few of the supporters clamouring for her candidacy could honestly say what her policies are. On the big issues facing France - the economy, foreign affairs, Europe, and, above all, the crisis over immigration and social cohesion, she has been conspicuously vague. "Ségolène is wonderful to behold," says Alain Duane, a prominent political commentator. "She's like a big, beautiful train, but she isn't pulling any coaches."

And there are many, even in her own party, who would like to see her come off the rails. Laurent Fabius, a former prime minister and her Socialist rival, provoked furious allegations of sexism by mocking the notion of a female president, and asking "who will look after her kids?"

Other detractors have portrayed Mme Royal as cold, ideologically confused and more interested in getting her manicured mitts on the presidency than knowing what to do with it.

By contrast, M Sarkozy is speeding along with all wagons loaded. The wildly ambitious interior minister has made no secret of where he stands on the key issues - a mending of relations with Britain and the United States, a reform of France's over-regulated, sclerotic economy, and "the immigration we want to have, not the immigration that is imposed upon us". It is a package that may prove hard to beat.

The polls, while fickle, already show the Right-wing candidate with a consistent edge - yet an edge narrow enough to make commentators confident that Sego v Sarko will be the most absorbing and significant political showdown in modern French history. "Opinion polls do not make an election," Mme Royal says. "What people recognise in me is the work I have done. I am a fighter."

The fight will be tough and ugly, but in 1972 only half of French voters believed that a woman would ever become president and now nine out of 10 do. Now that is "le phénomène Sego".
Thanks for an informative article Blackleaf - so often things are jumping across the pond and they don't always make the news here for us.

Re the article itself..... that women are finding their places within government ... especially high places, is a landmark for equality, however the equality suffers when one is praised because they are a female. What if there is a woman in charge? Does that make them better or more capable, or more devoted, or ???

If true equality is to be measured, women and men will be judged on the same factors as their male counterparts - for their governance and abilities, not because of gender.

We still have a way to go....

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