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 09/28/2006 Ségolène Royal | The woman who would be president

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Nombre de messages : 370
Age : 35
Localisation : Val d'oise
Date d'inscription : 05/10/2006

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MessageSujet: 09/28/2006 Ségolène Royal | The woman who would be president   09/28/2006 Ségolène Royal | The woman who would be president Icon_minitimeMer 11 Oct - 14:56

The woman who would be president

Her father believed that a woman's place was in the home - but she could soon be France's first female head of state. The old men who run the country must wish that Ségolène Royal had listened to Papa, writes Angelique Chrisafis.

At a sports hall in a small town outside Bordeaux, more than 1,000 smiling people sat wearing stickers depicting a blue sky dotted with fluffy clouds. For weeks these people had been out recruiting others to join their inspirational "movement". Now they were staring past the potted ferns and rock-concert lighting rig towards the stage, waiting to get a glimpse of their leader.

Suddenly, the amps blasted out the rousing tune of a second world war Italian partisan song. The crowd leaped to their feet, arms in the air, and began stamping and clapping the furious rhythm: "Bella, ciao! Bella, ciao! Bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!" From the back of the hall, smiling benevolently, waving to the beat, stepped La Bella, Ségolène Royal, parting her sea of fans with an entourage of camera crews.

Royal, the face that has launched a thousand magazine covers, this week begins a crucial and difficult new phase in her campaign to become the first woman president of France. In less than a year, the 53-year-old mother of four and head of the Poitou-Charentes regional government, has catapulted herself from relative obscurity to the top of the opinion polls. Once described by a fellow politician as having all the allure of a Jehovah's Witness, she has shed her glasses, fixed her teeth, practised her smile and taken to the airwaves. She is now the only serving MP in France's top 50 list of most-loved personalities: about 30% of the population have said for months that they want her to be the next president. What is more, photographed on holiday doing aqua-aerobics in a bikini, she has become an icon of France's celebrity gossip magazines. They revel in her personal story of triumph over adversity: the story of how a shy teenager who survived a brutal childhood as the daughter of an ultra-Catholic, authoritarian army colonel - a man who believed women were of use only to procreate - has grown up to wage war on French male chauvinism.

Royal is an outsider who has bucked the system of the hierarchical, male-dominated French left: rather than bide her time as an apprentice of the ageing men dubbed "les éléphants" who run the Parti Socialiste, she has won herself cult status and an army of devoted supporters. Her fans believe that she alone can rescue France from the gloom, depression and glaring social inequalities of 12 years under President Jacques Chirac.

France certainly has problems. Youth unemployment is among the worst in western Europe, violent crime is rising and many fear that last year's riots in the run-down, immigrant suburbs - where teenagers say daily racism plagues their lives - could erupt again with the slightest spark. In the last presidential election in 2002, France was horrified when the far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen knocked the socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin from the race in the first round. This time, Nicolas Sarkozy, the charismatic and demagogic interior minister and centre-right presidential hopeful, is making no secret of trying to appeal to far-right sympathisers with his tough stance on immigration.

With her huge popular support, Royal has imposed herself on the Socialist party as the only one capable of rousing electors. This weekend, she is expected to finally formally declare her intention to be the Socialist presidential candidate. But the elephants will not go down without a fight. Her rivals for the nomination are likely to include two former prime ministers and two other grands hommes of government. They say she is inexperienced and a ratings bubble waiting to burst. "It is going to be nasty," admits one Royal supporter.

Royal says her most important weapon in the struggle to take the Socialist nomination in November, and the Elysée next May, are her "treasures", the growing band of followers in her movement, Désirs d'Avenir - "Wishes for the Future". Thousands of these followers work for free for Royal, canvassing support, hosting barbecues, leading meetings, blogging and emailing suggestions on policy. Such has been her success that of the 185,000 Socialist party members eligible to vote in November, at least 85,000 of them have joined over the past year in an online recruitment drive. Wishes for the Future claim that most of these recruits have joined to vote Ségolène.

Royal's use of the internet to rally support has earned her the title of the "electronic Messiah". More than 34,000 people have so far contributed to her site, Desirsdavenir.org, where she invites them to shape her policies and co-write her forthcoming book. Numerous supporters run chatrooms devoted to her, including her eldest son, Thomas, who runs the official blog for young Royal supporters, the Ségosphère.

"I want you all to spend 15 minutes a day on my website, it will give you a boost for the day and you'll learn a lot," she preached from a wooden platform in Bondy town hall in the troubled northern Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis last week, after summoning 200 leaders of her regional support groups to a rally. "Ségolène President!" they chanted. One supporter, Medhi Benhabri, who works for Paris city hall, said Royal's website made possible the "utopian dream of the citizen shaping the politician's ideas". How many hours a day did he devote to her cause? He couldn't say exactly, but, "a lot".

Like the last socialist president, the wily and deeply enigmatic François Mitterrand, to whom she was once adviser, Royal is playing the provincial card, touring la France profonde - the country's regions - promising to shift power away from the Paris elite.

Over the past months she has perfected the "new look" which she used in the sports hall in Martignas-sur-Jalle near Bordeaux - stepping off the stage, taking the mic to the centre of the audience, declaring "The Right must go!", then speaking without notes on her idea of a "Republic of Respect", a new France that is "moral and fair". Before she arrived at the sports hall that night, I followed her on a typically gruelling 12-hour day of campaigning around the Bordeaux region. At the village of Mesterieux, she glided smiling into a crowd of more than 200 wine-makers who face having to tear up their vines as Europe battles to drain its surplus wine-lake. She so charmed them that the old ladies lined up to kiss her and have their photographs taken with her. Then, on an industrial site, she sympathised with aviation workers whose jobs were under threat.

"I like her because she has suffered," said one Gironde cheese-maker after seeing her for the first time. "Because she has been through hard times, I feel she understands me."

Allusions to Royal's troubled childhood seem to follow her wherever she goes, and are repeated in the latest array of books about her. She was the fourth of eight children of an army colonel named Jacques Royal. He wore a monocle, played Gregorian chants around the house and insisted his children went to mass and vespers every day. Ségolène was born in Dakar, Senegal, where he was stationed at the time, but the family then settled in rural Lorraine in north-east France. There, Col Royal meted out draconian punishments to his children, reportedly shaving his sons' heads if he caught them misbehaving. He believed women should stay at home and produce children as his wife had done. He once said: "I have five children ... and three daughters." It was not a place where girls were encouraged to have a voice and Royal immediately began striving to be better than the rest. "I realised I had to be financially independent to avoid humiliation," she has said.

Carl Meeus, co-author of a recent book about Royal and her partner, the Socialist Party leader François Hollande, who has trailed the couple for a decade, says: "We found it very difficult to get her to talk about her childhood; she doesn't like speaking about the past. She prefers the future." He says Royal was particularly scarred by the family crisis that erupted just after she went to university on a scholarship, when her mother finally left her father. With Col Royal refusing to pay any maintenance, her mother took cleaning jobs and relied on Ségolène, who urged the brothers and sisters to bring a court case against their father, which they won.

At the exclusive Ecole National d'Administration, training ground of the French ruling class, Royal was in the same class as the current prime minister, Dominique de Villepin. It was also there that she met Hollande, a doctor's son. He was awed by her steely determination and steered it into politics. She would later hold ministerial positions for education, environment, family and childhood while he took the reins of the Socialist party in 2002. They have four children, now in their teens and twenties, but have never married. The fact that Hollande may step aside and forfeit his own chance of running for president to support her bid astonishes her opponents on the left, who perhaps overlook his slack ratings in the opinion polls. They feel that Royal should be like Hillary Clinton and wait until her husband has had his go. Some of the elephants and others in France's unreconstructed political classes are, in fact, half hoping that he will take over from her at the last minute this weekend.

Royal's carefully constructed image seems built to withstand whatever is thrown at it. Her cousin Anne-Christine Royal recently announced she is to run as a candidate for Jean-Marie Le Pen's far-right National Front in municipal elections next month. Her older brother, working for the French secret services, was reportedly involved in the operation which blew up the Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour in 1985. But stories like these do not seem to put off the public - they just endear her further to them as a smiling survivor.

She is popular for refusing a police escort, and this summer, when her Paris flat was mysteriously ransacked - nothing was stolen - she protested about the way the incident was made public by the interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, her likely rival for the Elysée. But she is sternly able to play the law-and-order card as well: when she was recently hit with a custard pie while addressing crowds in La Rochelle, she ensured a complaint was made and the culprit, a leftwing protester, appeared in court.

"The more her opponents attack her, the more people like her," says Jean Guérard, of Aquitaine regional council. "When Laurent Fabius [the former prime minister and rival socialist presidential candidate] asked, 'Who will look after the children?' if she ran, the public rallied to her. She won't reply to the criticisms in public, she won't join the slanging matches and that just lifts her higher in people's estimation, it sets her apart."

MEP Gilles Savary, who defected from Fabius to join Royal's inner circle, says: "She's very difficult to destabilise. In public, she doesn't show hurt. She said to me the other day, 'I must not cry. Men can cry, like Lionel Jospin [who recently shed tears at a socialist rally]. It's in fashion for men. But if I cry, I'm finished, I would never be a candidate again. Look at what they would do to me in public, they would talk of nothing but my fragility.'"

"It's all about the people," she smiled between meetings in Bordeaux. "The people are at the heart of my project." Later, chasing her down a stairwell at Bondy town-hall after her meeting with the faithful, I asked her what was the one thing that kept her going: "The desire to live up to the hopes and expectations that all these people have placed in me. My need to rise to the challenge of the trust that the people, the country, has given me."

Royal, who for months was lampooned for not defining her political ideas but promoting a woolly notion of family values and public morals, has begun using her journeys around the country to clarify her vision to modernise France. An admirer of Tony Blair, within a party which was always suspicious of him, Royal, like Mitterrand, somehow manages to be both of the right and of the left. She outraged those on the party's left by suggesting a form of military service for unruly teenagers on riot-torn estates and criticised the Socialists' cherished 35-hour working week. Yet she is hugely pro-trade union and has promised to ban genetically modified food. Although pro-Blair, she is not pro the war in Iraq. "My diplomatic policy would not consist of going and kneeling in front of George Bush," she has said.

"I don't think she always wanted to be president. I think she stood up because she had another message to give," Savary says. "The Socialist party in France has been a closed-off, sealed-off clique of men, cut off from the population. She's not afraid to confront the taboos that the party once left alone, like security and crime, and France's ghettoes."

Dominique Bertinotti, one of the few female mayors of a Paris arrondissement, says Royal's very existence is in itself revolutionary. She is the only woman head of a region in France, a country where women only got the vote in 1944 and where political parties prefer to pay fines rather than meet quotas for female representation. "To see the very macho reactions to her, even among our own comrades, shows how she is breaking taboos," she says.

Royal's big promise is to give the people a voice in a society where those in power have stopped listening to the street. "The citizen is the expert, let's have a dialogue," is her refrain. But rivals in the party have laid into her for ducking difficult questions. On the platform in Bondy last week, she asked for questions from the floor, adding,"We are a democracy, after all." One man stood up and said, "What is the first measure you'll take if you're elected?" She neatly sidestepped answering.

Before she left, Royal promised the crowd, "Power won't change me." But many outside the Ségosphère still wonder who she really is, and what won't be changing.

09/28/2006 Ségolène Royal | The woman who would be president Segolene48

Sources : http://www.guardian.co.uk/france/story/0,,1882612,00.html
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