Could France get a female president?

Britain had Margaret Thatcher, Germany has Angela Merkel. Could France get Segolene Royal?

Britain had Margaret Thatcher, Germany has Angela Merkel. Could France get Segolene Royal?

The Socialist mother of four is the darling of polls in early running for spring 2007 presidential elections. Her long-time romantic partner, Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande, is also thought to be eyeing France’s top job.

Royal seems an unlikely candidate in a country where women make up only 12% of parliament. But that’s exactly what people like about her.

Polished and unflappable, the 52-year-old lawmaker and former environment minister campaigns for many of the traditional family values that are usually the right’s terrain.

It is unclear how long the “Segolene phenomenon” will last. She has not unveiled a platform and is untested on economic and international affairs.

Yet France is looking for fresh ideas, especially after three weeks of rioting swept the country this autumn, exposing deep problems of unemployment, disenfranchisement and racism faced by youths in poor neighbourhoods.

Many think Royal might be the left’s best weapon against equally iconoclast Nicolas Sarkozy, the law-and-order interior minister who is a strong potential candidate for the right.

Her popularity “is a way for people to get a message out: ’We want new personalities … modern personalities, like a woman in politics who has four children,'” said Bruno Jeanbart of the CSA polling agency.

A CSA poll in Le Parisien newspaper this month suggested that 42% of the French want Royal to stand for the Socialists. Next on the list, 68-year-old former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, was far behind, at 24%. Hollande, Royal’s partner and father of their children, scored just 12%.

Hollande and Royal say there is no domestic discord over the nomination. If both decide to run, they will let party members decide on the best candidate in November.

“I don’t reproach her for being popular. That would be absurd,” Hollande has said. Royal has said she will be a candidate if the party asks her.

Royal’s ascendance has provoked sexist comments from other Socialists. Senator Jean-Luc Melenchon griped that the election was “not a beauty contest". Former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius asked: “But who’s going to watch the children?”

The jibes were surprising from a party that pushed through a 2000 law to encourage female political candidates. It requires parties to submit an equal number of men and women in many elections.

President Jacques Chirac said recently that the law should go even further and be better enforced.

There are signs that France may be ready for a “Madame la Presidente”.

“There are salary disparities (between men and women) in France. That’s undeniable. There is violence against women. That’s undeniable, but I don’t think that today there is a problem for France to elect a woman,” said Daniel Bernard, who wrote a biography of Royal.

He points out that women have led several male-dominated clubs in France, from the CFDT union to business lobby Medef to Chirac’s former political party, the Rally for the Republic – since repackaged under a new name and leadership.

Royal says she is reacting to the buzz “with a sense of humour”.

“Polls don’t make an election,” Royal said in an interview on Monday on France-2 television. Asked about her lack of international and economic experience, she responded coolly: “Today, governance is about knowing how to surround yourself with the best people.”

Royal, one of eight children in a military family and a graduate of France’s prestigious École Nationale d’Administration, has held several cabinet jobs, including environment minister and family minister.

Today she is both a lawmaker and president of the Poitou-Charentes region in western France.

She is best-known for crusades to protect children from pornography and violence on television.

Her reactions are sometimes surprising. In response to France’s rioting, she suggested reinstating mandatory military service.

Royal also made headlines this month for skipping a Socialist homage to former president Francois Mitterrand on the 10th anniversary of his death. Instead, she went to Chile to support a candidate for the nation’s presidency, Michelle Bachelet.

Her choice raised eyebrows – Royal was a Mitterrand protégé – but it also marked her out as a forward-looking figure. Bachelet was elected Chile’s first female president this weekend.

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