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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 June 2007, 19:27 GMT 20:27 UK
Royal in the spotlight over split
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris

Segolene Royal and her partner, Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande
The split ended months of speculation
France's losing presidential candidate, Segolene Royal, can't seem to stay out of the spotlight.

On Wednesday, a new book will be published in France revealing the reasons why France's "golden couple" of the left split up after more than 27 years and four children together.

On Sunday, Ms Royal announced that her long relationship with the Socialist Party leader, Francois Hollande, was over.

The timing angered many Socialist supporters, as it overshadowed an otherwise unexpectedly good night for the party, when it gained better than expected parliamentary election results.

Strains hinted

Francois Hollande, 52, insisted in an interview with French radio on Monday that his separation from the mother of his four children was a "private matter" that did not have "political causes or political consequences".

However, other leading Socialists were not so convinced.

They suggested that the frost and ambiguities surrounding the couple's relationship had actively helped scupper the Socialists' presidential campaign - even though the strains between Ms Royal and her long-term partner were only hinted at in a French media that fights shy of breaching strict privacy laws.

Ms Royal, 53, has implied in the book that the real reason behind their break-up was an affair between Mr Hollande and another woman.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (file photo)
Ms Royal and Mr Sarkozy both had difficult relations with their fathers

In a radio interview publicising the book, Les Coulisses d'une Defaite" (Behind the Scenes of a Defeat') written by two AFP journalists, Segolene Royal said there were "intimate reasons" for the break-up, and that she had asked him to leave the family home, although they remained "good friends".

The two never married but have four children between the ages of 22 and 14.

Now, Ms Royal's announcement is widely seen in French political circles as a gambit in her bid to take over the party leadership - clarifying the fact that she wants to take over from her ex-partner as Socialist party leader, and reform the party in her image.

It was not a joint announcement, though Mr Hollande reacted quickly to confirm that they had separated.

From the day that she announced her candidacy for the presidency last year, the relationship between Francois Hollande and Segolene Royal became the object of public and media fascination.

'Living a nightmare'

Ms Royal's candidacy was long opposed by the "elephants" - the leading members of the party such as Lionel Jospin, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Laurent Fabius.

"Who will look after the children if she's president?" sniped one. Francois Hollande failed to rush to his partner's aid.

Strict privacy laws in France usually dissuade the nosiest of hacks
Agnes Poirier
Cultural commentator

Indeed, he was quoted as saying at the time "I'm living a nightmare", a comment which intensified speculation about their relationship - as well as a later oblique remark: "Queens may have their moment but the king will always return to take power."

Ms Royal, though, was floating on a massive wave of public popularity at the time, buoyed by a strong campaign on her internet site Desirs d'Avenir which attracted a new, younger generation of supporters who might not have otherwise joined the Socialist Party.

She and Francois were pictured sunning themselves on a beach, her toned form in a blue bikini attracting much admiration, while the short bespectacled Mr Hollande could be seen reading A History of France for Dummies.

But strains became clear when at her inauguration speech as Socialist candidate, the body language between Segolene and Francois was noticeably frosty.

The candidacy for the presidency was a job that he had long coveted, some say ever since the couple first met 30 years ago at the French elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration, which turns out future French political leaders and top civil servants.

Rumours that all was not well with the "Bill and Hillary Clinton" of French politics surfaced early in her presidential campaign last November, when the couple failed to be photographed together and appeared to be living separate lives.

There was a hastily-arranged photo opportunity, on 29 March in Limoges, to which photographers were invited to see Francois planting a kiss on Segolene's cheek as the two found themselves in the same town on the same day.

'Mother of the nation'

Yet theirs was a relationship in which the political and the personal had always merged.

Now, all is in the open - or almost - and the battle for the hearts and minds of the French Socialist party can begin in earnest
As a young power couple on the rise, they were filmed by French TV just days after Segolene Royal had given birth to one of their children. Francois was pictured feeding one child, while Segolene prepared the family dinner.

Her later image became that of the "mother of the nation", a woman who had struggled against the sexism of her strict army colonel father, her party and sometimes, of her nation, yet still kept faith with her ambition of conquering France's highest office against all odds.

The two were always very different characters.

Ms Royal's steely determination all but matched that of the winning presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, who, like her, had a difficult relationship with his father.

Francois Hollande has a reputation as a gentler figure, if no less ambitious - a rotund and jovial character whose nickname amongst Socialists is "flanby" or "marshmallow".

So if they knew about the couple's marital difficulties before, why didn't French journalists tell the public about them?

Writing in the Guardian, French cultural commentator Agnes Poirier explained that it was a question of attitudes towards privacy in French public life.

"We all knew there had been trouble, and some of us knew more. So why didn't we write about it? Because of our culture and our laws. Investigating or commenting on a public figure's private life is a no-no," she said.

"Besides, legally speaking, strict privacy laws in France usually dissuade the nosiest of hacks."

That is certainly true. Only a few months ago, Ms Royal denied all rumours of a separation and even commented that she had considered marrying Mr Hollande in a "wildly romantic" ceremony in French Polynesia in 2006 - though his reported response to AFP should have been a warning sign.

"I am not au courant with that," he told the French press agency. She told the author of a book of interviews with her late last year, Maintenant, "yes, we are still together, and yes we still live together".

And even last month, the couple said they were suing the publisher of another book which described the strains in their relationship and argued that Mr Hollande's interest in other women had helped fuel Ms Royal's ambition to oust him from the party - an allegation she said on French radio was "untrue, and deeply hurtful".

But with all the public suspicions that the relationship in private was not the happy one it may once have been, their differences over strategy in public certainly began to put real strains on the Socialist Party.

During the presidential campaign, Ms Royal's entourage fought semi-public battles with that of Mr Hollande.

'Bermuda triangle'

Her press spokesman, Arnaud Montebourg, was an old adversary of her partner's. When asked live on French TV whether Ms Royal had any faults, Mr Montebourg responded with "only one - her partner".

He was suspended for a month, but the comment raised eyebrows among those in the know.

Recently, one leading Socialist likened the pair's communication problems during the campaign to a "Bermuda triangle" that the rest of the party had to try to avoid being sucked into, while another told French TV that he was sick of the party's political life being determined by the state of one couple's relationship.

Now, all is in the open - or almost - and the battle for the hearts and minds of the French Socialist party can begin in earnest.

Segolene Royal will begin the fight to lead the party that long tried to sideline her ambitions - with the ultimate aim of leading it to victory as the presidential candidate in the next French elections in 2012.

Meanwhile, Francois Hollande's political future is looking rather less certain, as the man blamed by some Socialists for failing to reform the party enough to make it electable during his 10 years of leadership.


SEE ALSO
Profile: Nicolas Sarkozy
16 May 07 |  Europe
Sarkozy names ally Fillon as PM
17 May 07 |  Europe

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