Can Royal Win the French Crown?

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BENOIT TESSIER / AP

France's Socialist Party presidential hopeful Segolene Royal speaks during the second of three regional debates, October, 2006

That Ségolène Royal has changed France's Socialist Party forever was confirmed Thursday night when she soared to a blowout victory in the party's presidential primary. The question now is whether French voters will give her the chance to do the same thing to their country's presidency.

From the moment she launched her presidential campaign a year ago, the Socialist old guard has treated Royal's popularity as a sign of Cain. Behind it lurked the image of a siren luring the party faithful from the course of ideological purity and onto the shoals of populism. Adherents of this line — by no means all oldsters; the Young Socialists organization was in the thick of it — tended to ignore the glaringly obvious fact that the purists' favorite son, former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, got clobbered in the last presidential elections in 2002. The Socialists finished third in that election, forcing them to throw their support behind conservative Jacques Chirac in the second round in order to keep out the right-wing xenophobe Jean-Marie Le Pen. Still, until the results emerged just before midnight on Thursday at the party's shabby-chic headquarters on the left bank's rue de Solférino, many Socialist leaders had hoped the 218,000 party members would correct the supposedly faulty historical judgment of Socialist sympathizers who, polls showed, overwhelmingly favored Ségolène Royal.

Instead, the membership followed the trend of the party's voters, and then some: Royal's 60.62% share of the vote among the card-carriers bested her recent poll results among the party's voter base by more than five percentage points. Former finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose lieutenants had been peddling the competence-not-populism line, received a humiliating 20.83%, just a nose ahead of former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius's 18.54%. "Now we know that the party membership doesn't deform the will of the party's broader electorate," said party official and National Assembly deputy Bruno Le Roux. "We've become a real party grounded in its milieu." Maybe so. But that's a very different thing from a vanguard leading the workers forward into a new world. A Le Monde reporter captured the change perfectly by quoting a 45-year-old woman voter who blew up when the secretary of her party branch in Paris addressed her in the traditional leftist vernacular. "And why are you calling me 'comrade'?" she said. "We're not communists here."

With the party's nomination in her pocket, Royal now turns her attention to the main event — and to her most probable opponent, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. He and his lieutenants have made it clear that they intend to focus their campaign on clamping down on immigration and doing more to integrate foreigners. But aside from that they have announced a clutch of new policies meant to lessen the tax burden, loosen up labor rules, and set free the largely frustrated entrepreneurial spirit of the French people. Sarkozy's talk of a "rupture" with the past has engendered plenty of ill will among the pro-Chirac traditionalists of his party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). But there is scant prospect that anyone can challenge him for the party's candidature, especially now that the Socialists appear to have rallied behind a single candidate.

Royal will have to come up with more policy answers of her own to match Sarkozy, a crafty pragmatist happy to jettison ideological ballast when it restrains his progress. But at the same time she'll be seeking to broaden her success so far by keeping the spotlight on values rather than policies. Her main theme: bottom-up democracy. "Ségolène wants to get the citizens pulling along in solving the enormous problems we have," says one of her key spokesmen, National Assembly deputy Arnaud Montebourg. "We need a democratic revolution." Easy enough to say. But the French love irony enough, perhaps, to make a Royal the one to end the regal top-down traditions of the French presidency that Charles de Gaulle embodied and his successors emulated.