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The Wall Street Journal published today a long, meandering portrait of Ségolène Royal by Bernard Henri-Levy. I intended to write it up, but as afew has already this story up, this is the right place to put this.


But what was troublesome was that she was already backpedaling on the question of human rights while Nicolas Sarkozy -- the conservative rival to her Socialist bid for the Elysée Palace -- is now taking strong positions on Darfur, Chechnya and the world's dictatorships.

"Oh, Sarkozy and the dictatorships!" She roars with laughter again, like a young girl. "The right -- and the dictatorships, that I've got to see. . . . But, concerning my trip to China, you must understand that I really did speak very strongly, I repeated my concerns about their not respecting human rights."

Aha, I say. And why do you call them "human rights" and not "les droits de l'homme" -- the Rights of Man -- the way the rest of France does? I get the impression it would scorch her tongue to say "the Rights of Man."

And we launch into a strange, somewhat surrealistic dialogue of the deaf in which I explain that for the anti-totalitarian left which is now steering itself away from her, the Rights of Man is not just a phrase but a concept, one that is filled with memories of suffering, of Resistance, manifestly not to be played with -- and she, argumentative, inflexible, a sharpness suddenly visible in her face, her forehead, asserting that it's exactly the opposite, that when one says "Rights of Man" she cannot overlook the literal sense of the words, the rights of the Male as opposed to the Female, the rights of her father versus the rights of her mother -- and that is why she prefers to say "human rights."

"One day," she continues, "I was talking with a woman from a village in Mali. For her it was exactly that simple: If you say 'the Rights of Man' she understands they are the rights of the male population laying down the law there for centuries. So I choose her point of view, which is also, by the way, the same as that of any child you find in the street. And that is why I choose those words."

Sensing that we are now approaching a new level of misunderstanding, that in five minutes she is going to bring up the American feminist hardliners' demand for "herstory" instead of "history" -- that she doesn't understand why in her Catholic catechism classes they didn't say, "God our Father-Mother" instead of the more macho "God our Father" -- I change the subject.

BHL writes about this somewhat contemptuously, but this is an impression I've had in the past, and which this confirms: Ségolène Royal is a strongly militant feminist, and talks about it regularly and with conviction. This is rarely mentioned in the press, but it appears to be a very deep streak in her.

Quite the contrary, you see comments about how she likes to be surrounded by men, to appear as the only woman and play on her charm, in a supposedly cynical form of pseudo feminism. I think that she is enough of a politician to play on this, but that does not make her convictions on this any less real, and I think BHL confirms that impression.


The sommelier pours more wine. I observe she eats and drinks with real gusto, like Mitterrand did before he became ill; and that she has a little of Chirac's hearty appetite -- is this a sign?

This may appear as a silly comment, but in France it's quite meaningful - she enjoys the "real things" - an important, if invisible criteria, again ,acknowledged here by BHL.


So how do things stand with her rivals? What is going on in the Socialist Party? It is unclear whether it is she who doesn't want its support, or if it is the party, facing recent catastrophic polls, that has gone to ground.

(...)

As she sits back down, she says, "I understand Jospin. That a woman like me, a bécassine [girl from the provinces], was chosen as the party's candidate, succeeding in things that he never even got close to, I can understand how that might make him angry."

What sorts of things? "Chevènement," she says, referring to another heavyweight on the left. "Jospin still doesn't see how I got him, when he thinks that it is the fact that he didn't -- that Chevènement was against him, is why he lost." I am about to retort that it is not necessarily such a great thing to have the anti-European, populist Jean-Pierre Chevènement in her camp, but she continues, thoughtfully, "Why do you think he lost? Do you have an explanation for Jospin losing against Chirac and even Le Pen?"

Then, as I answer that it might have had to do with a form of political elitism which was punished by the electorate, she says, "That's it, yes. And what bothers them is my will to break away from that elitism, that arrogance. What we call participative democracy, I have never claimed it is the panacea, or that one must govern with an eye to public opinion, but to listen to them, to hear what they have in their heads, since for so many years they have been force-fed their truths -- it was necessary to do it and I am proud of doing it."

That's her programme in a nutshell. A ruthless determination to win (which Jospin did not have), the pragmatism to strike the right alliance to avoid vote losses, and that core belief in a new form of "populism" - simply not taking the populace for idiots.

And, together with her being a woman (and being very obviously mocked and scorned just for being one), this is a big change. That it is a big change is not flattering for France, maybe (and as a frequent proponent of the French technocratic model, I should listen...), but that this is happening is.


We talk about her vision of Europe, of Iran -- subjects where she certainly seems less incompetent than others have described her to be.

She has been playing the "dumb blonde" for the past 25 years, but she is neither dumb nor nice. and she has the track record of electoral victories to prove that those that underestimated her did so at their own peril.


She is sure of winning, she says, although she is a little nervous about Feb. 11, her big policy day. So much is expected from her, that it is possible she will disappoint. But like Hillary Clinton, whom she admires, she is sure she will win over the conservative camp, frozen in its certainties, incapable of facing the challenges, "the suburbs, the banlieues -- in the face of these burning tenements how can the only policy be repression, where demonstrators are no better than savages, barbarians at the gates of the city? Like the ancient Greeks do we not call those with less access barbarians? This attitude is madness, it is suicide."

Yep.


I  take my leave, still somewhat puzzled, but with the feeling that people may have been unfair to this woman -- myself included, and that she does not really resemble the slightly gauche statue into which she has sculpted herself.

Altogether an interesting and rather favorable article (and in the WSJ Op-Ed pages, no less).

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Thu Feb 8th, 2007 at 04:29:07 PM EST

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