by Jerome a Paris
Wed Dec 6th, 2006 at 07:59:41 AM EST
Ségolène Royal has yet again managed to upstage Nicolas Sarkozy in the French media this week, with a quite remarkable trip to the Middle East, where she was welcomed like a head of State in Israel, while meeting Mahmoud Abbas, visiting the UN forces in South Lebanon and meeting with various representatives of the Lebanese political forces.
A polemic about the Hezbollah member of the Lebanese delegation which compared Israelis to nazis has turned to her advantage in France, emphasizing the panic in the Srakozy camp more than anything else; meanwhile, her very strong declaration against Iran getting access to any nuclear technology (even for civilian uses as allowed for under the NPT) has managed to wrongfoot Sarkozy once more.
Her trip to the Middle East, initially organised as a short trip to Lebanon, was changed at the last minute into a 5-day tour of the region, including visits to most parties. Everywhere, she was welcomed with the highest protocol and got to meet the most senior people. In Israel, she met with Ehud Olmert, as well as, separately, with the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense and such attentions have undoubtedly boosted her credibility on international affairs.
When meeting the Lebanese delegation in Beyruth on Friday, a Hezbollah representative was present, Ali Ammar, who started speaking in Arabic and criticized the "sionist entity" and its occupation of Lebanon, which he compared to the nazi occupation of France. Ségolène Royal did not react to these words immediately as, it transpired later, they were translated to the journalists (by one interpreter) but not to her (by another interpreter) - this was confirmed by the French ambassador to Israel and by others. On the next day, she stated that she had not heard these words, that she would have left the room if she had heard them (the Ambassador stated the same thing), but she wanted in any case to talk to all parties. That triggered violent criticism by the French right, blaming her silence, calling it "shocking", and calling her a lightweight. Douste-Blazy, the French Foreign Minister (of 'weren't English jews expelled to Germany' fame) warned against her "simplistic" declarations.
But the lack of reaction by Israelis themselves to this supposed incident, and the obvious ridicule of Douste-Blazy giving any lesson on this topic, combined with the obvious care the Israelis took to receive her well, combined to make these criticisms appear as shallow politicking and backfire. The immediate commentary was that Sarkozy was panicking to see yet another supposed weakness of Royal being contradicted by highly visible facts.
Royal then struck the coup de grâce with her declarations confirming her earlier words during the socialist primary that she was against Iranian having any nuclear capacity, including civilian. While that position is not in line with what is allowed under the NPT, it embarrasses yet again Sarkozy, who has tried to appear as modern and straight-talking by taking a pro-American and pro-Israeli stance, something supposedly not fashionable and not popular in France. By taking an even tougher line on this topic, Royal takes away that argument from Sarkozy, makes it hard to criticize her (does the right really want to snipe at her for being tough?) and takes center stage yet again.
Interestingly, her position, while friendly to the Israelis, is not necessarily rigid, as she is favorable to direct talks with Syria, and has also spoken publicly, when meeting Abbas, for European funds payments to be resumed to the Palestinian Authority.
Sarkozy is also pissed off because he thinks that Chirac did everything to help Royal organise her trip (by putting Ministry of Foreign Affairs personnel and Embassies at her disposal), and because she was greeted with enthusiasm by the French military within the FINUL forces in Lebanon (as a daughter and sister of military officers, she received VIP treatment, and was allowed to fly to South Lebanon to meet with the military brass).
Some will conclude simplistically that Royal is rightwing, something which is belied by her actions and politics in the past 25 years (not to mention her strong feminism, which is not often flagged in the media, but which is very real, and repeatedly mentioned by her in her speeches). But she has so far managed to destroy the ability of the right to paint her as a naive lefty by taking highly visible and controversial stances on issues usually associated with the right - and thus capturing values like law and order but coloring them with lefty tones like fairness and justice (her slogan is "order juste, fair order). As a strategy to reconquer the lower classes that had been effectively abandoned by the left to the benefit of Jean Marie Le Pen, it seems so far to be working.
Just like her partner François Hollande, Ségolène Royal has been repeatedly underestimated by people around her in the past, and she has taken advantage of this - and she has won some tough elections. The area where she was elected as socialist MP was a rural, conservative district (just like Hollande's) and in 2004 she beat the then current Prime Minister in his regional stronghold to become the first female president of a region.
The campaign is going to be interesting...