Ségolène's New Tack: a Hard Left

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Francois Durand / Getty

French Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal announces her political agenda for the forthcoming election campaign in Montreuil, France, February 11, 2007.

Ségolène Royal finally has finally acquiesced to an image she had angrily spurned: the Indulgent Mother of the French Republic. At the height of a critically important speech in her campaign for the presidency of France on Sunday, she took up the issue of the country's underfunded education system and allowed her cool reserve to crack. "As a mother," she said, her eyes glistening, "I want for all children born and reared in France what I've wanted for my own children." The crowd of more than 10,000 Socialist Party members loved it. It was the key moment in her exposition of a resolutely Socialist view of the world that went down like ice cream for the party faithful. "We cannot allow financial power alone to drive the world," she insisted. "The marketplace is not the only law." As for foreign policy, her principle there was simple: "the never extinguished light of the French Revolution," shining with enlightened commitment to human rights and a multipolar world.

After weeks of criticism aimed at her frustratingly vague campaign for the presidency, Royal donned a red blazer and delivered a two-hour stemwinder in a cavernous exhibition hall near Paris' largest airport. Her speech gave the Socialists new hope that she really does have a left-wing program to answer the market theology of conservative rival Nicolas Sarkozy. But, even as her talk on education and her born-again leftist rhetoric inspired many, her other proposals had some wondering how she intends to pay for it all — and whether her exhaustive catalogue of proposals adds up to a vision that can inspire French voters hungry for something different.

Though Royal began with a highly non-Socialist reminder of the parlous state of France's finances (public debt amounts to 64% of gross national product, or 18,000 euros per citizen), she followed that up with a long list of new and expensive programs that will hardly give France the balanced budget it has lacked for decades. She vowed to increase the guaranteed minimum income from 1,254 euros a month to 1,500 euros; to increase the lowest state pensions by 5%; to have the state pay rental deposits for its poorest citizens, to offer all young people starting out in the job market an interest-free loan of 10,000 euros, as well as to subsidize 500,000 starting jobs for citizens in that age bracket. Royal avoided any concrete suggestion that new taxes would be needed to pay for those new rights. She did say she wanted to shift the tax burden "from labor to capital." Beyond that, the only means proffered to finance these programs was that old political chestnut, cutting out waste — that and somehow formenting "a rising spiral of convergent energies."

Royal's speech was enough to give many in the audience a new sense of hope that she could reverse her recent plummet in the polls and beat Sarkozy. In the RER commuter train back to Paris, usually one of the grimmest environments of the City of Light, people were engaged in happy talk with strangers about how to improve society. "Man, wouldn't it be great if the RER was like this every day?" said one middle-aged Socialist about the camaraderie on the train. No one really thinks it could be; usually it's not just Socialists on the train. But having secured her base, Royal now can start doling out the details needed to sell her aspirational message to the rest of France.