When Ségolène Royal won the socialist presidential primary in 2007, her nomination was met on the left with widespread enthusiasm. Not only was she the first woman to stand a chance of being elected president in what remains a macho political culture, but she unsettled the party’s implicit pecking order, beating a former prime minister (Laurent Fabius) and a respected finance minister (a certain Dominique Strauss-Kahn). She scored well in the election’s first round and, though Nicolas Sarkozy beat her in the run-off, she still managed to garner 47% of the vote. This doesn’t change the fact that she lost. But her campaign was a considerable improvement over the Socialist Party’s performance in 2002, when PS stalwart and incumbent prime minister Lionel Jospin came in behind the National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen and did not even qualify for the second round. If “Ségo” did not beat “Sarko,” she ran what many regarded as a fairly respectable campaign.
Since then, however, her reputation has plummeted. Far from being a symbol of socialist rejuvenation, she is widely view as egocentric, petulant, intellectually mediocre, and weird. She often presents herself as a victim. When critics blamed her for her 2007 defeat, she compared herself to Joan of Arc, complaining that she was being “burned alive.” The French enjoy snickering at her verbal gaffes. She once made up a word, saying “bravitude” instead of “bravoure” (“bravery” or “courage”). This incident inspired a book imagining a France in which she had been elected president, entitled Libertude, égalitude, fraternitude. She developed a peculiar habit of personally apologizing for President Sarkozy’s actions, including a controversial speech in which he blamed Africa for its economic plight and insulting remarks he made about the Spanish prime minister. In 2008, she lost the race for socialist party leader to Martine Aubry by a handful of votes, setting off a bitter feud in which each side accused the other of fraud. Her messy break-up with her partner, former socialist leader and rival for the 2012 nomination François Hollande, though no fault of her own, did nothing to improve her public image.
Royal is often scorned by intellectuals. There’s an interesting video in which the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu claims that Ségolène Royal is “not really on the left.” Bourdieu says that he learned from one of his students, Rémy Lenoir, who taught Royal at the prestigious National Administration School (ENA), that she opted for the left only because she saw it as the better career choice. Joining the Socialist Party was the quickest path to becoming a government minister. The fact that Royal was close to Bernard-Henri Lévy (BHL) during the 2007 campaign confirms more than it contradicts her weak credibility in intellectual circles.
None of this matters much in 2012, as Royal’s popularity has plummeted. On the eve of the October 9 socialist primary, polls place Royal well behind Hollande, the father of her children, and Aubry. It seems possible that leftist rival Arnaud Montebourg could beat her for third place.
Yet if Royal’s fall since 2007 has been precipitous, the fact remains that her contribution to French politics cannot be entirely written off. Yes, she is very much of the same mold as other socialist leaders of her generation—born in the fifties, trained at the ENA, far removed from May 1968 and leftist politics, mentored by François Mitterrand in the 1980s. But in significant ways she breaks out of this mold, and, through her quirkiness, has occasionally managed to inject some refreshing ideas and instincts into the Socialist Party’s drearily unimaginative political universe.
First, for a national figure, Royal is genuinely committed to the importance of local politics. In a book that she co-wrote with the sociologist Alain Touraine in 2008, she points out that while the French left has not won a truly national victory in twenty years ( since Mitterrand’s reelection in 1988), it regularly wins local elections: almost all regional councils, a majority of departmental councils, and most large cities are governed by the left (which resulted, recently, in the French Senate swinging to the left for the first time in the Fifth Republic’s history). Royal observes that the “French easily adhere to the local left, but not to the national left.”
Like many national politicians, Royal’s own electoral mandates are the result of a parachutage, that is, a transplanting of herself into a region where she has no personal connections. But since being elected president of the historically conservative Poitou-Charentes in 2004 (which she had also represented in Parliament), she has thrown herself into the region’s politics with considerable gusto. Implicitly, she embraces the American idea that local government can be a “laboratory for a democracy.” She has promoted the social and environmental responsibility of corporations, requiring companies in Poitou-Charentes that receive public subsidies to sign a “charter of mutual commitment” in which they promise not to outsource or to lay off workers (as long as they are profitable) and to respect environmental standards. In 2009, she helped the region earn a grant of 400 million euros from the European Investment Bank to develop solar energy installations. Her local government even brags of low tax rates. I don’t know much about the Poitou-Charentes, but Royal’s taste for finding innovative solutions to practical problems seems sincere. Her emphasis on the role that local politics can play in defining national priorities also suggests an antidote to the PS’s tendency to place like-minded elites in leadership role. In this spirit, she has chastised the practice of the cumul des mandats—the tradition whereby politicians hold several offices simultaneously—arguing that it prevents politicians from devoting themselves fully to local issues.
The second reason to like Royal follows from the first: she believes that a desire for more democracy, and not just more social protection, is what draws people to the left. In this way, she harks back to the old “Second Left,” which asserted that democracy was as important to socialism as economic justice. In her region, she introduced a form of participatory democracy into the process for determining school budgets: assemblies of teachers, students, and parents meet to agree on “participatory budgets.” For her current campaign, she organized seventeen “people’s participatory universities,” at which citizens, activists, and experts debated a broad range of social issues. She drew on these to determine her campaign platform. Cynics could correctly point out that this lip-service to the ideal of participatory democracy is often cynical and manipulative. But given the PS’s tendency towards elitism and ideological ossification, even a nod in the direction of “participatory democracy” is welcome change.
Third, she believes that one can be on the left and still sound like a conservative—or at least a traditionalist—on a range of cultural, social, and “lifestyle issues.” In 1989, she published a book calling for measures to keep infants and children from watching so much television (she particularly bemoaned the cultural consequences of Japanese mangas). As a member of parliament, she proposed a law that would limit “commercial and grading use of the human body for advertisement.” In her current campaign, she emphasizes, Tony Blair-like, the need to fight petty delinquency. One can object to these reflexes, and see them as signs of her ultimately conservative outlook. But too often, these kinds of issues have been abandoned to the right, and particularly to the far right. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the left, if it wants to be able bridge the gap between political elites and ordinary people, to show that it has something to say about these problems. The American sociologist Daniel Bell once described himself as a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture. In a way, the same can be said of Royal.
It seems pretty clear that Royal’s moment has passed. Most French people seem fed up with her and she elicited nothing like the enthusiasm she inspired five years ago. The current economic crisis (debt, unemployment, the euro), which is clearly the central issue of the current campaign, doesn’t play to her strengths. Her progressive disappearance from the political scene may not be a huge loss. But at a time when the PS seems particularly unimaginative, it is worth remembering that Royal had more ideas than she is often given credit.