France's Rising Socialist Star

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You would think France's Socialist Party would finally have a reason to rejoice and come together.

It's been condemned to opposition since Lionel Jospin's calamitous defeat in the first round of the 2002 presidential elections, followed by a parliamentary vote that gave the Right an unassailable majority in the National Assembly. Now, 11 months from next May's presidential elections, a Socialist politician is not only defining the political debate, but also polling better than Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the best candidate the otherwise hapless conservatives can produce.

So why then is the phenomenal rise of Ségolène Royal, the elegant and iconoclastic ex-family minister who now presides over the Poitou-Charentes region, on the Atlantic coast southwest of Paris, sowing more bitterness than joy at the top of the party?

When she first emerged as a potential candidate last fall, it seemed that Royal's gender was the problem. ("Who will watch the children?," acidly observed former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius — who soon realized he was corroding his own reputation in saying so.) Now it's the fact that she has become so popular — or more precisely how she's done it — that's upped the dander of Socialist party dinosaurs. Earlier this week, former Education Minister Claude Allegre described Royal as having "an immense talent for self-promotion" — which in French politics is an insult.

The problem is that Royal, 52, whose partner François Hollande is the Socialist Party Secretary, is solidifying her standing by espousing what many in the party leadership consider decidedly un-socialist, practically treasonous ideas. In recent weeks she has advocated a much tougher line on young delinquents. She wants to yank troublesome kids from middle school classes and put them in reform schools; withhold state family allowances from dysfunctional families until they take parenting classes, and even send teenage miscreants to military boot camp. Socialist voters, mindful of the youthful rampages last fall in the poor outlying housing projects and this spring at universities, approve of her tough-love approach by a resounding 69%, according to a poll commissioned by the newspaper Le Figaro.

But Royal didn't stop there. Earlier this week she took a hefty swing at the most iconic achievement of the last Socialist government: the introduction of the 35-hour work week. Royal said it had led "to a worsening situation for the most fragile people, especially women in low-qualification jobs" while giving middle-management employees longer vacations.

The party leaders believe there's a Socialist line to be toed, and Royal's stylish stilettos are out of bounds; even Hollande has voiced some concern. Perennials like Fabius and former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who both think it's finally their turn to accede to a presidential candidacy, have been hoping that Royal's blatant appeal to the center will alienate party members, who will select the Socialist candidate in two rounds of voting next fall. "Ségolène may win the first round," says one source close to Strauss-Kahn, "But we're hoping everyone else will join us to stop her in the runoff."

But the party faithful may not be all that faithful anymore: Socialist ranks have swelled by 40% in recent months, and the new members are younger, less working-class, better educated and more likely to be female than the old ones. Having waited months for the Ségolène bubble to burst, her Socialist adversaries are instead watching it settle in comfortably for the summer. As for Royal herself, she has taken to wearing summery white, perhaps not an entirely subliminal counterpoint to the dirty politics du jour in her party and the conservative ruling government as well.