PARIS - The extraordinary triumph of Ségolène Royal in the Socialist Party's primaries for France's April 2007 presidential elections reflects the growing global trend in which women have become fundamental actors in shaping the destinies of their nations.
On Thursday, Royal garnered around 60 percent of the vote of the nearly 219,000 party members in the Socialist Party's primary, making her the first female candidate ever with a real shot at the presidency in France.
French socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal smiles as she arrives for her press conference in Melle, western France, Friday Nov. 17, 2006. Royal, a 53-year-old former family and environment minister, won the backing of France's Socialists in a party contest Thursday. Her overwhelming victory over two male rivals gave her an early boost in the tough campaign for presidential elections this spring. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)
It took only one round of voting for Royal to easily beat out two of the party's most prominent leaders: former prime minister Laurent Fabius, who took 18.5 percent of the vote, and former economy and finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who won 20.8 percent.
Although polls have indicated for months that Royal would win the primary, both Fabius and Strauss-Kahn had gambled that the voting would go to a second round, in which the two candidates would join forces to defeat her.
"Her triumph confirms the thesis that French citizens demand a radical change in our way of doing politics, and are ready to give new leaders a chance, instead of continuing to count on the old figures," Hélène Miard Delacroix, professor of political science at the Ecole Normale Superieur in Lyon, told IPS.
Other analysts say Royal's political style, which is based on frequent references to the public's demands as expressed in meetings and via Internet, is already modifying French politics.
"With her campaign, Ségolène Royal has disrupted the Socialist Party's traditional ways of doing politics," Gérard Grunberg, professor at the Institute of Political Sciences in Paris, told IPS.
"Royal has achieved something extraordinary," Grunberg added. "Among her supporters, you can find backers as well as staunch opponents of the European Union constitution, who are usually divided by deep trenches. Royal has supporters on both the far left and the right."
Royal has a blog, "Désirs d'avenir" ("Wishes for the future"), which allows party members and sympathisers to express their views via the Internet. The blog is actually a book in progress, and is to serve as a basis for her policy proposals.
While the candidate calls this method "participative democracy", her approach has led her opponents to criticise her as "populist." Former Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, who until late September aspired to be the party's presidential candidate for 2007, said her style was "illegitimate."
"I wish that the PS would adopt decisions based on its own convictions, and not on opinion polls," Jospin said in a party meeting in late August.
But Royal has stubbornly defended her approach. "I am not afraid of the people," and "I trust the people's collective intelligence," she says.
A successful approach, obviously. Pascale Perrineau, director of the Centre for Political Research (CEVIPOF), said "Many French citizens have suffered a loss of political and ideological guidelines, navigating between right-wing and left-wing reference points, and even trying to bring them together."
"In that sense, Royal's political eclecticism is in sync with the ideological do-it-yourself behaviour of many voters," Perrineau added.
Polls carried out over the past few months suggest that Royal could win next year's elections. Surveys conducted by the SOFRES polling firm since May 2006 have consistently found her ratings to stand at around 34 percent, ahead of all other possible Socialist candidates.
The same polls give minister of the interior Nicolas Sarkozy, who is the most likely candidate for the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), similar results.
Royal, 53, has the necessary background and credentials, with university degrees in economics and political science and a career as a high-ranking official for more than 20 years. She is currently governor of the Poitou-Charentes region in southwestern France.
But Royal's main asset just might be her gender. Throughout French history, women have played a marginal role in politics. No woman has ever presided over the country, and only once, for a couple of months in the early 1990s, did a woman lead the government. In the French parliament elected in 2002, only 12 percent of the deputies are female -- 69 out of a total of 577, an all-time high for France.
"French voters are ready to try a woman as head of state," said political scientist Delacroix.
Royal's campaign for the Socialist Party nomination was stirred by the election of Angela Merkel as head of the German government in September 2005. One week after Merkel had come first in the German general election on Sept. 18, 2005, Royal said that she would run for president "if the PS supports me."
Many men in the Socialist Party saw her aspirations as mutinous, and some even made openly sexist comments. "If she runs, who is going to take care of her children?" Fabius quipped at the time. Royal is a mother of four.
"The presidential campaign is not a beauty contest," remarked Jack Lang, another Socialist self-appointed leader.
And Henri Emmanuelli, who claims to be the leader of the party's left-wing, remarked "Next time I go out hunting, I will add one more bullet to my gun."
Implicitly, Royal has been featuring her gender as a major trump card in her campaign. She has trumpeted the political successes of other women abroad. In early 2006, Royal openly supported Michelle Bachelet's successful campaign in Chile. She has also publicly praised Spanish Deputy Prime Minister María Teresa Fernandez de la Vega.
Royal's success so far has prompted several leaders of the ruling UMP party of President Jacques Chirac to consider nominating a woman, the current minister of defence Michelle Alliot-Marie, as candidate for next year's elections, instead of Sarkozy.
Last October, one of Chirac's closest associates, former prime minister Jean Pierre Raffarin, described Alliot-Marie as "a stateswoman." And incumbent prime minister Dominique de Villepin said of her, "She is a woman of great talent, who has shown her leadership ability in our government."
Alliot-Marie herself is toying with the idea. "A number of party members are urging me to run for the nomination. They say that only I would be capable of defeating Ségolène Royal in the presidential elections," she said in a press conference on Oct 10.
If Alliot-Marie runs for and wins the UMP nomination in January, France will be guaranteed a female president from 2007 to 2012.
Copyright © 2006 IPS - Inter Press Service