Ségolène Royal’s candidacy last spring was without precedent in French politics. For the first time, a woman was the presidential nominee of a major party and thus had a chance of being elected. There were several other women candidates running in the first round of the election, but unlike Royal, they represented marginal parties. They had no chance of reaching the second, determining round of voting, in which the top two candidates face off.
Royal was opposed in the primary of the Socialist party (PS) by the “elephants.” This is the nickname given to a handful of prominent and longtime party leaders with very impressive résumés and their own political aspirations (such as former finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former prime minister Laurent Fabius, and former culture minister Jack Lang). They treated Royal’s candidacy with mockery. “Who’ll take care of the children?” asked Fabius when she announced her intention to run. Lang went further: “The presidential election is not a beauty contest.” (Although he became a loyal campaigner for Royal, he has since joined a government commission under conservative victor Nicolas Sarkozy.) “It would have been better if she’d stayed home instead of reading her recipe cards,” said Strauss-Kahn after one of her broadcasts (he now hopes to become head of the International Monetary Fund, thanks to Sarkozy). These remarks, widely reprinted in the press, worked against the three men in public opinion, which took them as signs of male chauvinism, and they did not hurt Royal. Quite the opposite. Members of the PS, demonstrating a desire to renew the political class and charmed by a female candidate, chose her by an unexpected majority of 60 percent. The party primary campaign thus indicated surprising popular backing for the candidate.
The presidential campaign itself exhibited fervent popularity for her that had rarely been seen in political meetings. Many party leaders did not share this enthusiasm, above all not those who had themselves dreamed of being the presidential candidate. Royal, for her part, set up a campaign organization distinct from that of the PS. Wounded by the attacks, she did not attempt to reduce the tension between her own team and unsympathetic segments of the party leadership. In the end, they played some role in the defeat of the left. When the “elephants” in the party finally grasped that obviously chauvinist attacks were counterproductive, and that she had to be opposed in another register, they began to call her competence into question.
In January and February 2007, when Ségolène Royal went through what was dubbed an “air pocket,” newspapers that had been supporting her echoed these claims of incompetence and criticized her lack of experience and of “stature.” The right picked up the argument. From then on she was seen in the polls as less capable than Sarkozy to take on the duties of
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