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The Very French Rise of Ségolène Royal, La Belle Dragon: The Next President of France?

by Nidra Poller, PJM's Paris Editor Paris December 8 2006
"Flanked by light pink panels with C'est elle (she's the one) in a deeper pink. Her campaign for the Socialist party nomination was played on a glossy surface, featuring her oval face surrounded by a corolla of photographers."
Ségolène Royal's rise to power on a swish and a smile has been spotlighted in some quarters of English-language media--the NY Times for example--charmed by her charm, impressed by her gender and, perhaps, relieved to have something good to say about a French person. Now her transatlantic admirers are treating her Middle East grand tour fiasco with benevolent disinterest.

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December 8, 2006 - 2:53 pm

Major wire services–AP and Reuters, for example-aided and abetted her spin operation. Instead of reporting on her ambiguous complicity with a Hizbullah MP, Ali Ammar, who compared the “Nazi-Zionist entity’s” occupation of southern Lebanon with the Nazi-German occupation of France, they headlined her disapproval of the comparison and left out the real story.

Royal willingly met with a Hizbullah MP at an official dinner in Lebanon while his Party of Allah was laying siege to the Siniora government, listened politely while he lambasted the Zionist entity and the demented Americans. She thanked him for the frank expression of his opinions, said she agreed with much of what he said, especially concerning the United States, and begged to remind him that a state is not an entity.

It took Royal twenty-four hours to concoct a disingenuous disapproval of the bit about the Nazis: The comparison would have been unacceptable if in fact it had been made. She and the French ambassador would have left the room if in fact it had been made and translated. But, in fact, neither she nor the ambassador had heard any such words. She passes the buck to the translator and saves her ire for opponents in the UMP camp, accused of playing politics with… With what? With a 100% purely political jaunt in the body-building capital of foreign policy.

This is the Socialist credo. Other politicians pursue narrow personal ambitions; a Socialist administers to The People. Heartless capitalists pursue outrageous profits; Socialists administer to the Poor and Needy. Nationalistic nations pursue aggressive policies; Socialists build Nations without Borders that administer to the Downtrodden.

Ségolène Royal is a political animal; she followed the direct path from the elite Political Science Institute to the elite National Administration School, graduating in the same class as Dominique de Villepin. Two years later François Mitterand brought her into his government (1982-8). She was elected deputy of Deux Sèvres in 1988, and has been consistently reelected.

From 1992 to 2002 Royal occupied various ministerial posts in the spheres of environment and education under a variety of Socialist PMs. On a parallel track she entered into a free-union with fellow Énarque (graduate of the elite school of administration) François Hollande with whom she has four children and a beautiful album of Madonna & child photo-ops. In 2004 she was elected president of the Poitou-Charentes region, a post she still holds today.

The rise of Madame Royal is not unrelated to the fall of Monsieur Jospin. Overtaken by Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 presidential elections, Jospin made a dramatic exit from the political scene, followed by a series of comical reprieves in the absence of popular request. He poked his head through a hole in the curtain this fall to say that if anyone wanted him to run for president… don’t all shout at once… and disappeared, leaving a void where the summit used to be.

Enter Ségolène Royal. Smiling.

Flanked by light pink panels with C’est elle (she’s the one) in a deeper pink. Her campaign for the Socialist party nomination was played on a glossy surface, featuring her oval face surrounded by a corolla of photographers. She was packaged as popular, and her popularity grew, adding to the package. She stood for herself, and all the rest was bundled into a wish list that would come up from the People to the future Pr√©sidente.

S√©gol√®ne didn’t promise the moon, she promised to listen, and to bring people together. From time to time she tossed out a concrete project-for instance, using soldiers to straighten out delinquents–provoking discontent in the Old Guard along with reminders that she was expected to follow the Party platform. Party leader Fran√ßois Hollande, looking like Madame Bovary’s husband, would step in and remind everyone of a bit of everything. The next day S√©gol√®ne Royal would take back the project or explain it away, and get back to the main business of winning the nomination because she is a winner.

In the last stages of the campaign her message was crystal clear: come one come all and vote for me so I will win outright on the first round. She won by 60% of the vote, leaving former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn and former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius looking like Dumbos (Socialist Party bigwigs are known as “Elephants”).

Despite artificial doubts about competition from PM Dominique de Villepin and Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, it looks like Nicholas Sarkozy will be the UMP presidential candidate. A stern Interior Minister running against a nice lady?

He wants to kick out illegal immigrants; she wants to listen to their plight and succor their ills.

He wants to try minors guilty of heinous crimes as adults; she wants to listen to youths and bring them into the folds of a gentler, more supportive society (though she is advocating a rather un-Socialist tough on crime policy).

He wants job flexibility; she wants more welfare, higher minimums, more protection, lower profits, more cushions.

And on top of it all, she is a she.

This is such a big extra that the anti-Sarkozy wing of the UMP started pushing Alliot-Marie. Perhaps they don’t exactly know how to talk up the eternal feminine, perhaps it was just a coincidence, but they got her into the news by having her threaten to shoot down Israeli reconnaissance planes flying over French UNIFIL troops. Alliot-Marie has more class in her chiffon scarf than Royal from head to toe, but it didn’t fly and she has coupled her maybe candidacy with a promised commitment to Sarkozy if it turns out he is the winning number.

The way the numbers stack up in France, the Socialists can’t win without votes from the far left. But the radical anti-capitalist left can’t even get together and choose one candidate for all their anti thises and thats, let alone snuggle up to S√©gol√®ne. Fran√ßois Mitterand, a sort of false-mustache leftist, brought the Socialists into power by coalescing with Communists, Ecologists, and assorted ideologists who spent the succeeding years resigning from the coalition. It won’t work this time.

Triumphant on the home front, the Socialist candidate set out on a Middle East tour designed to serve as a three-dimensional real time disclaimer of the alleged policy vacuum behind her heartwarming smile. News leaked that Royal, who had repeatedly declined invitations to meet with the CRIF (Jewish umbrella organization), was going to Lebanon without stopping in Israel. Shortly afterward, Israel and of course the territories were added to the itinerary…but there is no proof of a cause & effect relation between these two details. Nonetheless, things have gone sour since Royal’s spokesman, Julien Dray, started blaming the Sarkozy Jews for stirring the uproar over her Lebanese gaffes, and then blew away a member of the CRIF who approached him in the lobby of the King David Hotel to request an interview with the candidate.

The bumpy Mideast outing is just the beginning of a perilous campaign in which the charm offensive will collide with the hard realities it strives to dissimulate. Royal had planned to visit a Lebanon on the mend from the “Israeli offensive,” reconstructing under the watchful eye of the beefed-up UNIFIL and the benevolent gaze of Lebanon’s best friend, la France de la compassion. She landed in Beirut just as Hizbullah was putting the finishing touches to its devious coup d’√©tat in the form of a massive popular demonstration. Les citoyens dans la rue, power to the Hizbullah people and the Siniora government holed up in the Serail, trembling but determined to resist.

S√©gol√®ne’s condolence visit to the Gemayel family and her pre-condolence visits to Siniora, Jumblatt, etc. were not exactly opportune. One might go a step further and say that political stumping at that particular moment, when the legitimate government had a knife to its throat, was indecent.

The Chirac government had bemoaned the plight of the Lebanese in July-August, when it could be blamed on Israel; it has been conspicuously silent about the current crisis. And Royal? If elected would she pursue the policy she advocated as the masses poured into the center of Beirut? She advised all parties to get together and talk things over. Siniora, Gemayel, and their allies could not hide their embarrassment. They joined the French ambassador in begging Ms. Royal to leave before the December 1st siege. She responded with cockeyed courage: if she left, it would mean the country was in dire straits. So, by staying, she proved it wasn’t?

Ignoring the ominous inner circle of Hizbullah fighters, she treated the demonstration as if it were the Lebanese equivalent of the anti-CPE movement that so amused the French media last spring.

Visiting French UNIFIL troops in Naqura, she deplored Israeli flyovers as if they were just short of WMDs.

Dining with members of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Commission she found common ground with Hizbullah MP Ali Ammar’s fuming diatribe against the demented United States and the Nazi-Zionist entity.

When all of these gaffes caught up with her-by then she was in Jordan-S√©gol√®ne Royal called a press conference to set the record straight…and twisted it a bit more. Her tender loving “I listen to everyone” fa√ßade is fragile. When she is challenged, when she is out of her element, when she feels insecure, she becomes haughty and disdainful.

Why didn’t she react when Israel was compared to the Nazis? Madame la marquise blames it on the domestics…the translator didn’t translate that remark. Journalists press the point? Madame is indignant! How dare anyone question her good faith? Still not convinced that Monsieur Ammar actually said what he said-he has since confirmed down to the last comma-she knows that she would have left the room in protest if he had said it. Which would have been a bit complicated, concretely, because she would have had to run right back into the room to express her agreement with his observation about the demented U.S. Mideast policy.

If Hizbullah was on the menu in Beirut under siege how about Hamas for desert in Gaza? She reiterated her principle– any and all democratically elected officials are proper fare–but her advisors must have told her not to risk another loss in translation. In Gaza she met with young people at the French cultural center (rebuilt, I suppose, after it was sacked during the Danish cartoon jihad) and crowned the visit with a mutual admiration duo with Mahmud Abbas who, according to her entourage, received her as if she were a head of state. Considering the narrow limits of the PA president’s power, why not?

While the controversy stirred and boiled in France, Little Miss Royal was received as a charming French femme in Israel where her lovely smile and solemn declarations about the inviolable security of Israel were taken at face value. Chances are that only French-speaking Israelis knew about her previous faux pas and contradictory convictions. Curiously enough, reports on the Socialist candidate’s babe in the woods behavior came from French journalists who accompanied her, not from impudent bloggers slunking on the sidelines. One had the impression that they were shocked by her lack of savoir faire.

We have a nice expression in France for someone whose clothes don’t fit the man-emprunt√© (literally “borrowed”). S√©gol√®ne Royal is perfectly at home in Socialist party meetings, even if she does not really toe the party line. She looked right at home in Chile, campaigning with Michelle Bachelet. She is at her best when photographed from the shoulders up, smiling radiantly, putting her high cheekbones in the best light, and surrounded by cameramen.

But when she tried to jump from comrade candidate to almost head of state, she looked emprunt√©e. Sitting on sofas in stately rooms, standing on podiums, walking and talking with important people …she never looked like the right person for the situation. Worst of all, sitting in a helicopter flying south from Beirut under siege… Only now, as I write this, do I realize exactly what was wrong. She was sitting there thinking about herself. And it showed. And it made her look so silly.

Royal won the Socialist nomination in the party’s first-ever primaries; the choice of candidate used to be a prerogative of the party machine. But voting was restricted to card-carrying “militants”-a few hundred thousand in all. Now she has to convince millions. The contrast between her lofty ambitions and skimpy stature is quite startling. When a journalist asks her to comment on the tense relations between France and Syria, she replies: “I don’t give improvised press conferences.” It is said that she can’t comment on any subject without a report drafted by her advisors. Going from glitch to glitcher on her 4-day whirlwind Middle East tour, the Socialist candidate came across as a cardboard political pinup sent out to seduce the chumps.

Who and what stands behind the pretty façade? As the old guard crumbled, dozens of hopefuls tried to pick up their chips. Some of them coalesced, set aside their personal ambitions, and placed their bets on Ségolène Royal. Time will tell who is really running the show.

Long silences and a noncommittal stance sometimes hide ugly opinions. While S√©gol√®ne Royal makes it a point of honor “to talk to everyone,” her campaign chief, Jean-Louis Bianco, is more explicit. Ma√Ætre G. W Goldnadel reminds us in a recent blog that Bianco stood up for Hamas last spring in protest against sanctions voted by the Council of EU Foreign Ministers. He cosigned a letter with Madame Monique √âtienne, president of France-Palestine Solidarit√© 04, decrying the anti-Hamas measure as collective punishment and implicit encouragement of Israel’s “unilateral policy in flagrant contradiction with international law.”

S√©gol√®ne Royal backtracked on some issues, circled and twirled on others, but stood firm on one: the demented American policy in the Middle East. On the other hand, she bills herself as the candidate most-opposed to a nuclear Iran. She doesn’t even want to let them have domestic nuclear installations though she hasn’t explained how she would get around the provisions of the non-proliferation treaty. How would President Royal actually apply her toughest-on-Iran policy?

Easy! She would talk to them.

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