On New Year's eve, as we watched President Jacques Chirac deliver his annual message on television, it soon became evident that we were witnessing not only the end of a lackluster presidency but also the closure of a whole chapter in French politics.
It was not only Chirac, whose tenure many regard as a failure, that seemed to belong to an age long past. The very format of the 10-minute show in a glittering décor, complete with the national flag and the presidential insignia, belonged to another world, as did the double-speak used as language and the fake solemnity chosen as method of delivery.
That world may well end next spring as the French choose a new president. The person expected to close the chapter is a woman, Segolene Royale, who has surprised everyone by becoming the nominee of her Socialist Party after a hotly contested primary against two political heavyweights. Bumper stickers marked "Segolene President" are already the rage in France while most public opinion polls show that Royal has every chance of winning against her right-wing rival Nicolas Sarkozy, the current Interior Minister.
Seen from the prism of traditional French politics, Segolene, as her friends call her, is atypical. She does not belong to the technocratic elite manufactured by half a dozen exclusive schools. The daughter of an army colonel and the grand daughter of a general, she has distinguished herself by breaking with her family's tradition of right-wing politics and adopting Socialism as her guiding light in public life.
Her private life may also raise a few eyebrows in traditional right-wing circles. She has been the companion of Francois Holland, now Secretary-General of the Socialist Party, for more than 20 years without going through traditional marriage rituals. The couple have raised their four children based on a strict sharing of the burden of responsibility.
Other factors make Royal an unusual beast in the jungle of French politics. She is the first woman to become the presidential candidate of a major political party in France. She is the second major candidate to be born outside France. (She was born in Senegal where her father served in the late 1950s.) She is also the second youngest candidate in the history of French presidential elections.
While Royal certainly owes her success to her charisma and hard work, there is no doubt that she also benefits from deep historical changes that have reshaped France since the late 1960s.
To begin with, women now account for almost 52 percent of the population in France, largely thanks to their higher life expectancy compared to men. At the same time, the number of woman voters has been in constant increase since 1944 when General Charles De Gaulle granted women the vote, while the number of men voting has been falling, especially among the poorer urban strata.
There has also been a shift of emphasis from typically male political issues, such as national grandeur, macroeconomics, and corporatism, to typically female political issues such as health, education, and the environment. Chirac's ranting about "the place of France in the world", and his attempt at perpetuating the illusion that France can somehow impose its model on the global system, sound hollow to most French. To French women, they sound completely off the mark.
The steady femininization of French politics, bringing it closer to the North European societies, means that such traditional themes as looking for a "providential man", and dreaming of a major revolutionary change no longer resonate with the average French voter. The politician using traditional grandiloquence to peddle themes of "national honor" and " global leadership" will sound rather comical to most French voters.
The femininization of French politics is also reflected in the fact that, for the first time ever, there are as many woman-candidates as men in next May's presidential election.
The Communist Party is fielding Marie-George Buffet, a jovial ex-Cabinet minister who is also the first woman to lead her party. The ultra-left Workers' Fight (Lutte Ouvriere) is represented by Arlette Laguillere, a veteran firebrand of unconventional politics. The environmentalists will also have a woman, Dominique Voyent as their standard-bearer. There is even a possibility, albeit slim, that Michelle Alliot-Marie, the popular Defense Minister, may become a candidate for diehard Chirac supporters.
But, let us return to Royal if only because she is the only one of the eight candidates who have so far entered the field to have a chance of winning— at least at this stage.
While trying to assert her dominance on issues of interest to woman voters, Royal has been careful to deal with what many see as her weakness: Her lack of experience in security matters and international affairs. Accordingly, Royal has traveled to Africa and the Middle East, where she met the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and has multiplied contacts with European government leaders.
On three issues of special interest to our region, Royal has adopted a clearer stance than her rivals in the French presidential race.
On Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions, Royal caused a bit of a stir when she implied that Iran should not be allowed nuclear technology even for civilian use. Since then she has fine-tuned her position by stating that Iran should not be allowed to have dual use nuclear technology, implying that force could be used to stop such a development.
On the Palestinian issue, Royal has been exceptionally forthcoming in her support for a two-state formula. Ignoring the Socialist Party's traditionally pro-Israel position, she has tried hard to warm up relations with the Palestinians.
Royal also sounds as tough as George W. Bush on the need to crush global terror. It is hard to know how she might translate her tough tone into actual policy, especially with a Socialist Party marked out by its pusillanimity on the issue.
On international affairs, Royal sounds more like British Prime Minister Tony Blair than the Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero who has injected a good dose of anti-Americanism into his foreign policy mix. As president, Royal may well lead France closer to Britain both on foreign policy and on issues of market-oriented economic reform.
With almost five months to go, it is impossible to guess how Royal might fare in a contest that promises to be the toughest and the dirtiest France has ever seen. There is even a possibility that, God forbid, Royal might find herself facing the ultra-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, in the second round, scheduled for April. And that would be a real show if only because Royal represents all that Le Pen hates in a France that has changed his worst nightmares.
If Royal becomes president, France may face a curious situation. As leader of the Socialist Party, Francois Holland, Royale's companion, would be the natural candidate for premiership. Would he step aside to avoid the traps of a system in which the prime minister is either a rival to the president or nothing but a presidential rubber stamp? Those who know Francois Holland, also know that he is not the type to end his brilliant political career by becoming a male version of the " First Lady."
You see! French politics has become interesting again. Even for that if nothing else, Royal deserves our thanks.