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Europe diary: Royal progress
5 October 2006

BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell looks at the rise and rise of French socialist Segolene Royal, and asks whether men have to be tall to succeed in French politics.

Segolene Royal

The moment the first glass fell, the English term for a horde of journalists had to make way for the French phrase. The "press scrum" had definitely turned into a "bousculade de presse", literally a press scuffle.

The neatly set-out wine glasses tumble over onto the trestle table as the knot of camera crews and photographers seethe around the woman who would be President of France, Segolene Royal. One of her minders pushes back a sound man, who returns the threat, wielding his microphone pole like a pike.

Already an 80-year-old woman has somehow pushed through the aptly named press to yell in Madame Royal's face about her failure to have a meeting with a women's collective. As journalists call out questions, the surprisingly composed Sego calmly replies: "This is not a news conference."

I'm not quite sure what it is though, apart from a terrible start to the second day of her campaign to become the Socialist Party's candidate for president.

The attempt to have a mid-morning aperitif with a few of Marseille's great and good is appallingly organised and nobody seems that surprised. I return from France rather baffled by the attitude there towards presentation in politics. One moment nothing seems to matter more, the next nothing matters less.


There is no doubt that the stylists have had a go at Segolene Royal. Much of the media focus on her is because she is a woman, and a rather striking woman at that, looking much younger than her 53 years, with a lovely smile. Judges of a certain age would doubtless describe her as "fragrant".

Segolene Royal in 1997
The glasses were still big in 1997
But pictures taken when she was in her early thirties show a rather plain, severe looking woman, hair drawn back in a tight pony tail, wearing massive glasses.

While she ruefully observes "sexism is not dead", it is actually helping her at the moment. We interview a friend of hers who, while talking about her strength of conviction, has to add that she is also "very soft, very feminine". It is not the sort of language you would use in Britain or America these days.


The night of her declaration that she will run for the Socialist nomination, the glamour is all hers. The rally is held in Vitrolles, a town outside Marseille. The area is an important symbol for the Socialists because they retook it from the Front National.

Segolene Royal in Vitrolles
The typeface: Something out of Labour's 1980s nightmare
It is years since I have been one of the handful of people in a suit and tie at a political gathering. The Sego supporters here are workers, middle-aged ones, casually dressed. Even more surprisingly, the very few people who are wearing suits, the local politicians, look every bit as rumpled and creased as I do, and that too is an oddity, if a welcome one.

A French TV documentary team ask me what I make of it all. I have to say that it is surprisingly homespun, or un-spun, for the nation that invented chic and prides itself on style.

The people in the front row look as if they are sitting there because they got into the hall early. In Britain any party would have a carefully arranged backdrop - a black person, a nurse, a silver-haired granny and a man carrying a baby.

The slogan "Pour nous c'est elle" is, I think, rather clever in its simplicity but the typeface is something out of Labour's 80s nightmare. This is one stage that is not stage-managed.


Does any of this matter? I confess that the media has a rather two-faced attitude towards this sort of spinning. We feel cheated if it goes on, but will stamp our feet if events are badly organised, and throw a wobbly if a politician makes a speech on housing policy without touring a housing estate.

But in the case of Segolene Royal there are some crucial questions. The one many socialists are asking is whether she is merely a creation of the media and the opinion polls. Many of the French public are thinking: "Looks the part but what does she stand for?"

And she is light on policies. Oh, I could tell you she has said she admires Tony Blair, thinks young troublemakers should be in boot camps and questions France's short working week, but little of this is recent.

When a BBC colleague asks her what she would give to France, she says, "Desirs d'avenir." It sounds pretty in French, and pretty vacant in any language: "Desire for the future." I have a patent system to test the meaningfulness of political soundbites. Ask yourself whether anyone could possibly take the opposite point of view. And no campaigner would win votes saying they "Longed for the past" or "Ran from the future".


It's true that she has a difficult trick to pull off. She has to win the Socialist Party nomination, and although she looks unstoppable she probably has to kow-tow towards some of the sacred cows. More importantly, to win the election she has to appeal to the centre and right without losing the left.

One of the crucial reasons for Tony Blair's long survival is that the left never had any where else to go. In France they do. I think I detect the beginning of this balancing act in her Vitrolles speech: "When you ask the French what symbolises the best in France, it's not the land or the language but the tricolour and social solidarity."


Nicolas Sarkozy and Dominique de Villepin
Nicolas Sarkozy and Dominique de Villepin: There is a gap of 26cm
I read recently that the French Prime Minister, the aristocratically tall Dominique de Villepin, has been privately making fun of his small but perfectly formed party boss and interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.

But after the 6ft 5in (1.96m) De Gaulle and 6ft 1in (1.87m) Chirac, could Sarko, at a mere 5ft 5in (1.65m), make it to the Elysee Palace?

Yes, we all know about the French and small men, but according to my sources Napoleon was slightly taller at 5ft 6.5in (1.69m).

Please use the post form below to comment on any of the issues raised in the diary.

Admittedly I am a francophile, having lived in Paris for a number of years and returning whenever I can, but wish to add my admiration for a country that would support a woman candidate for such a high position. The complaints about stagnation at the hands of the Socialists should be tempered by comparisons to a country that places the interests of the "market economy" (read wealthy corporations) over that of the welfare of its people.
Barbara Riggs, San Diego, CA, USA

Madame Segolene Royal will have the advantageous Surprise Effect (woman, late arrival, unknown policies...) on Mr Sarkozy, who is riding on an essentially immigration ticket (what else works for the right in France?). The French don't care about policies as long as you give them their SECU. A logical candidate for the masses.
Ghislain Mandouma, Princess Anne, MD, USA

As a some time student of French politics I find it a little sad that at a time when France clearly needs leadership, it gets Hello magazine. Mme Royal may be a wonderful person and a great leader in the future, but surely we are coming to the end of soundbite politics? Mme Royal is a graduate of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration and probably quite a formidable intellect....so let's have less of the swimsuits and more of the content. We cannot afford another fool in power in the West...one is enough.
Jonathan Mills, Dublin Ireland

What do people see in Sarkozy? He's trying to convince the electorate that law and order will solve all the country's problems, and in the time he's been minister of the interior things have only become worse, probably a result of his aggressive policies. I don't believe he has any real convictions, he's just playing a very tired and over-used card, partly to keep the Front National at bay, and partly because it's a card that always appeals to a lot of voters, with its brutal and simplistic logic. As is often the case in elections, one votes for the lesser of two evils, and in that respect Segolene Royal is definitely a better choice.
Jon Handelsman, Paris, France

It is a massive gimmick by the PS, who have no real programme. I'm not particularly a fan of Sarko, but like Thatcher it is perhaps inevitable that France requires a strong President and a reality check. France is just too laid back and many of the social benefits are unbelievable. Royal for all her charm is not what this country needs.
M Dobson, Lyon, France

Obviously, our cousins from beyond the channel are still as obssesed by the French and their leaders as they used to be a few centuries ago!...What scares you the most, dear friends (especially those who left the UK to play gentleman farmer in our beautiful country) when you watch Sego's rise? Her being a socialist or a woman?
Véronique Née, Paris France

I believe Mark is right to discuss her image, as it has been one of the key issues in the debate until now - the rightwing attacks her for having a carefully groomed image, and so do her enemies in the Socialist party. Sarkozy also has a carefully groomed image - check how many times he's photographed either A: looking serious next to some gendarmes or B: smiling like a New Labour good guy. The French are resistant to image in politics, but are now realising that the two people most likely to slug it out for the Elysee, Sarko and Sego, are highly developed political animals, with one eye on the mirror and the other on the press.
Jeremy, Lancié, France

A nice snap-shot of the ongoing election campaign. Home-spun, the socialists ? Of course they are - and to appeal to their "militants" Segolene must be just that tiny little bit more (chic) than her contenders, but not loose the base! However, as inside view of French politics, Mr. Mardall lost a poit: The idea to reverse a slogan to see whether it makes sense may be true elsewhere, in France, where under the reign of Mitterand and Chirac the consensus has been "not to change anything and never disturb the sleep of the people" (so-called ni-ni politics which Villepin, the Prime Minister, tried to abondon to his detriment, trying to call up the future, and not the past, is already an act of heroism. So much for the "Grande Nation" - a souvenir.
Hans-Werner Wabnitz, St Jean de Vedas, France

Election time...so as Mark states, size, looks and soundbites will be the deciders for the next seven months. Don't by any means mention policies, or heaven help us think of changing anything. Change? In France? Come on, we're talking about France, the living museum, so the fossils will be preserved...
emma smith, Strasbourg, France

I seem to recollect a Segolene Royal appearing on several occasions on Robin Day's Question Time on the BBC (that would be 15-20 years ago). Is my recollection correct? The woman in question spoke remarkably good English and left an impression of speaking quite a lot of sense.
withheld, Paris

I lived in France for almost 25years and I`ve witnessed three presidential elections.The French are unpredictable when it comes to electing their presidents.Although Madame Royal may lack all it takes to be the president of a country in crises against itself,she has her chance if she is nominated by her socialist party where already the in-fighting is tough.As for the short man, rival and potential candidate of the center-right party,he seems to be a stronger bet to carry out necessary reforms needed.However,Monsieur Sarkozy`s impatience and precipitation in action taking may spell his doom because the French always resist harsh reforms.Drastic reforms are necessary but,with trade unions more powerful than government,the task ahead is hard and the political future unpredictable.
Adeniyi Akinlabi, LONDON

I have lived in France for more than 25 years and was married to a Frenchman for most of them. I do not believe France is ready for a woman President and fervently hope that Nicolas Sarkozy is elected. He won't be a popular President but he is exactly what France needs. I have never thought much of Segolene Royal, a lightweight, a gimmick in the male-dominated French political arena. I have yet to be impressed by anything she has said. France is going to the dogs frankly, it needs a strong President, which Segolene Royal will not be.
Jennifer , France

From what I gather it looks a straight choice between Society and Economy:- Sarko threatens to destroy the fabric of French society along Thatcherite lines. But, in doing so, he offers to revamp it's economy. Segolene promises to preserve the enviable French 'quality of life' but will leave the Economy to stagnate further. Can there be a third choice please? Someone who will preserve Society AND improve the Economy? If not, then Mark Mardell has a point and the French may as well choose on the basis of height!
Geoff Bunn, FRANCE

Royal is yet to pronounce her plan to the nation, but the same could be said of all the other would-be presidents. She is currently riding on the crest of media-created wave and if she presents her plan too soon, she leaves herself open to attack from all sides, both within the socialist party and outside
David Crumpton, Yvelines, France

Segolene Royal the likely Socialist Presidental candidate may have the Glits and the looks but clearly lacks any clear policies to win next April's election! The French socialist are without a clear mandate and cannot agree among themselves the best way forward.Clearly hard choices must be made as France's unemployment in the cities remain high and the need to reduce high Government spending.I expect the centre right UMP to win in the Duma(Parliament) and personally I think Nicholas Sarkozy will secure victory over Ms Royal for the Presidency.
Mark Vallance, Prayssac, Lot, RF

In speaking of a system to test the meaningfulness of political soundbites, Mr. Mardell suggests we ask ourselves whether anyone could possibly take the opposite point of view of Segolene Royal's "Desirs d'avenir". And says "no campaigner would win votes saying they 'Longed for the past' or 'Ran from the future'". Isn't that exactly what politicians are doing when they start hawking out-of-date "Traditional values"? That sounds like longing for a long-dead and buried past to me.
Corson Bremer, Paris, France

I was born a french citizen. I appreciated very much this article of yours, on many points, especially the "Ask yourself whether anyone could possibly take the opposite point of view." :DDD You come to understand that french politician are so much locked into good minded, conventional speech that they cannot possibly express much. Only few dare. As for the "homespun", it is precisely the spun. They want it that way. But look how locked is their chat : the spun is composed by a set of rigid rules that forbids their saying anything but degeneratedly demagogic sentences. And yes, you are also right about the fact that France lost a big deal of its glory and standards. But as far as I know, so did england ;) All my best wishes and sympathy, Jean-Manuel
Jean-Manuel Torres, Joensuu, Finland

At this point, in the history of the great la France, a change of leadership, if necessary needs a cool headed personality like ségolene. Otherwise, our Indefatigable Papa Chirac should be allowed to continue as a life president. This will go a very long way in preserving the heritage of the great la France as a world power of reckoning.
OMOKOGBOH AKIN, Fougères, France

It is quite surprising that your journalist, in his rush to comment on dress and style, has omitted to mention that her 'partner'and father of their four children, is the general secretary of the Socialist Party in France with all that it implies.
Paul Hubball, Amiens France

Um hello? what about her politics? Is Mark the Europe editor or fashion and beauty editor? It's outrageous and ridiculous covergae if you ask me. trite not newsworthy and the you come to expect more from the BBC- do we need to know about her image?
maria garner, London

To Maria Garnier: little can be said of Sego's politics because she has said little herself, no policies, only bland statements. She has very carefully avoided content - including (especially!) during the Socialist Party summer conference - and sold herself entirely on image.
Roger Ellis, Paris, France

Maria Garner, you seem to assume that 'fashion and beauty' are somehow not part of 'her politics'. Mark's article actually very nicely caricatures the new pre-election mantra... Namely: 'don't worry about policy until right before the elections; until then make yourself look as good as possible' (with all that this implies). Unless I am very much mistaken that is exactly what we have in Britain with Cameron now as well...
Luka Gakic, Oxford

"And no campaigner would win votes saying they "Longed for the past"... " Well, John Major tried it at a party conference, painting a picture of a Victorian rural idyll. Hm, I guess this proves your point. Bob
Bob O'Hara, Helsinki, Finland

Another disaster for Europe: France with a socialist President. "Desire for the future"? For French socialists the slogan should be "Fear of the future, desire for stagnation."
Mark Nelson, Tallinn, Estonia

To Mark Nelson: Sego is hardly a socialist, rather a social-democrat. Looking at Northern-Europe, that seems not to be such a bad thing after all.
Bergholm de Amida, Helsinki, Finland

Sarkozy is obviously aware of his lack of inches. He was recently photographed with Bush while standing on something that made it appear that he was actually the same height as the American president. Bush is in fact 7 inches taller than Sarko, so the subterfuge was not lost on sections of the French press.
Tony Drapkin, Vaux-Rouillac, France

We'd better be aware that in French culture and history, short men have always had marked advantages. See: Asterix, Napoleon, Luis de Funes, Pierre Richard, Jean-Paul Belmondo or Francois Mitterand
Thomas Feher, Budapest, Hungary

Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. The late, great, Douglas Adams.
Mat Sumner, Mulhouse, France

The whole article was interesting but references made to people's heights was a little out of context.We all know how tall Napolean was, so height hardly matters if you are endowed with an intelligent and useful mind. P.S(I speak reasonable French by the way.)
Dr.Pirzada M.Adil Makhdumi., Lahore,Pakistan.

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