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Battle Royal
A French woman campaigns to be Mme. la Présidente

On a rainslicked Saturday morning, about 400 politicians, activists, and a press scrum usually assembled only for rock stars are gathered in a sports center in the northern Paris suburb of Bondy. It’s the eighth annual Parliament of the Suburbs, a “people’s parliament” meeting to debate the thorniest issues facing France’s underclass— issues that touched off the 2005 suburban riots: high unemployment (nearly 25 percent in Bondy), shoddy education, lack of training and limited access to jobs.

Suddenly, to a blast of Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” she appears: Ségolène Royal, fresh from her landslide victory to become the Socialist Party candidate and the first woman to run for president of France.

Royal listens attentively to each speaker, then unveils the Bondy pact for fostering entrepreneurship and subsidizing small businesses. The day before, she was also in Bondy, at a batteredwomen’s shelter run by SOS Femmes, announcing her first priority if elected in a May runoff: to send Parliament a law against violence to women (in France, a woman dies from domestic violence every 72 hours).

Ségolène, the first French politician referred to by her given name and even just by “Ségo,” has a pragmatic, plainspoken, populist strategy. Championing participatory democracy, she stumps in outlying areas, listening to citizens’ concerns, eliciting their solutions. Her campaign style is the polar opposite of traditional, predominantly male French politicians, who are typically elitist, Pariscentric and theoretical— like her opponent, bombastic Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy, who became the candidate of the conservative, incumbent Union for a Popular Movement party after barely surviving a rift with President Chirac and an open party split. No matter how the election turns out, “[Ségolène Royal] has completely turned politics in France upside down,” says sociologist Françoise Gaspard.

Marie Ségolène Royal, 53, single mother of four, fought her way into the political limelight. Born one of eight children in Dakar, Senegal, she’s the daughter of a strict Catholic colonial military officer who believed girls shouldn’t be educated. Yet she persevered, graduating from such elite institutions as Sciences Po and École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), where as a feminist stunt she staged an all-male fashion show. When only 19, she sued to force her father to pay alimony and child support for his kids’ education, and she won. At ENA, she met her longtime partner and father of her four children, Socialist Party Secretary François Hollande.

Royal served as judge of an administrative court until the late French President François Mitterrand noticed and mentored her. She won a 2004 campaign for president of the Poitou Charentes region, the sole woman to win a provincial seat. She also served as a junior Cabinet minister— for environment, for education (where she instituted laws against bullying and pedophilia and made the “morning after” pill available in high schools), and for family (where she introduced paternity leave and crusaded against child pornography). Six years after a law on electoral political parity went into effect in France, she remains the highest ranking woman in French elected office. “[Ségolène’s success] is one of the first fruits of this new law,” says Yvette Roudy, former Minister of Women’s Rights and part of Royal’s campaign team.

So far, that law’s results are mixed. Women have made more progress locally, less nationally. While holding 47.5 percent of seats in municipal councils of districts with more than 3,500 inhabitants, women occupy only 12.6 percent of seats in the Assemblée Nationale (parliament). Political parties actually prefer to pay stiff penalties rather than propose women for office.

Royal wants to help even the score. Openly calling herself a feminist, and committed to both domestic and international female solidarity, she ruffled male feathers when she flew to Chile to campaign with now-President Michelle Bachelet instead of attending a Mitterrand memorial event. In a country renowned for its macho political class, Royal promises that “women’s issues” will no longer remain marginal. Despite generous maternity and childcare benefits, work status and worklife balance are still sources of inequality in France: Women earn about 80 percent of what men do, but perform 80 percent of the housework. With Europe’s second-highest birthrate and the uneven availability of day care, many women are saddled with solo care of young children. Moreover, despite a higher-than-average participation by women in the workforce, France falls under the European average for the number of women sitting on corporate boards. And a World Economic Forum study released last November ranked France No. 70 out of a field of 115 countries for male-female parity in public and economic life (Sweden ranked No. 1, the U.S. No. 22). “There is a strong correlation between the status of a woman and the state of justice or injustice in a country,” Royal reminded a packed house during her acceptance speech as Socialist candidate. Women stood and cheered. Most of the men remained seated.

Royal’s presidential campaign is a test run of her ideas about more egalitarian political representation and participative democracy. Her team is 50 percent women, with a mix of ages and minorities—unusual diversity in France. She’s pledged to create “popular juries” to oversee government programs, and aims to deliver an annual report on government performance. Her website, Desires for the Future—with a network of more than 400 local committees to bring government closer to the people—holds ongoing cyberdebates and signs up new party members.

The campaign, exhaustively analyzed by the press, is sometimes criticized for being heavy on glossy photo spreads and smiles, light on detailed proposals. “She radiates happiness during a time when the French are pessimistic about the future,” wrote political journalist Philippe Alexandre, after spending a year on her campaign trail. But Royal has already been pilloried for some gaffes on the international stage, as when she met a Hezbollah lawmaker and later claimed she didn’t hear his remark comparing Israel’s occupation of Lebanon to the Nazi occupation of France. Her “beyond ideology” politics sometimes seem contradictory; for example, she is for gay marriage and gay adoption rights, but proposes a “law and order” boot camp for delinquent youths.

Still, in a packed gymnasium in Paris’ left-leaning 11th arrondissement, Royal is in her element. A sea of red roses, the party symbol, fills the room, and the candidate sports a rose-colored blazer. She dedicates her campaign to “veiled women, mutilated women, genitally excised women, battered women, women who are beaten down.” In her hoarse but sultry voice, she cries out: “I have one word for the women here: We’ve come full circle. We are unsinkable.”


Update 5/07/07

Royal Narrowly Loses French Presidency, Vows to Rebuild Party
Segolene Royal, the socialist candidate in the French presidential election, lost to conservative Nicolas Sarkozy by a 53 to 47 vote yesterday.  Royal, who identifies as a feminist and would have been the country's first woman president, sent a positive message to her supporters after yesterday's defeat, saying, "We will work, renovate, re-found, and prepare for the next opportunities… In every test, every political opportunity, one must take away the lessons and then always look towards the future." 

 While Royal has not yet indicated whether she plans to run again, she told the Washington Post, "You can count on me to continue renovating the left… That is the precondition for us having a future."

 Washington Post 5/6/07; Segolene Royal website - Desires for the Future