Ségolène Royal: France’s leading lady is ready for battle

It’s taken 10 years but the former partner of Francois Hollande is once again combative, energetic and engaged at the heart of French politics

Revenge is a dish best eaten cold. A decade ago, Ségolène Royal watched helplessly as Valérie Trierweiler, a journalist at Paris Match magazine who is 11 years her junior, stole the heart of François Hollande, moved in with the socialist party leader and eventually became first lady.

Some argue the ensuing drama should be confined to the private lives of the protagonists. But Hollande and Royal are political animals, and their story of love, rivalry, rupture and reconciliation is at the core of contemporary French politics.

After seven years in purgatory, Royal, who had been spurned and humiliated, has made a stunning comeback. She has resumed her role as chief supporter and adviser to Hollande, with whom she lived for 27 years. In April 2014, Hollande appointed the mother of his four children as the third-ranking member of prime minister Manuel Valls’s government.

Royal is no ordinary cabinet minister. Detractors say she's a temperamental and bossy diva whose restoration symbolises a decadent monarchy. Nonsense, Royal told L'Obs magazine. "We're in France, country of the rights of man and woman, in 2015, not at Versailles under Louis XIV."


Royal’s admirers say the 17 million votes she won as the only Frenchwoman to have made it to the run-off in a French presidential election confer a special status that justifies her position.

Royal may be playing for higher stakes. After losing municipal, European and departmental elections since last year, the socialist party’s prospects are poor in next December’s regional elections. Hollande wants to be re-elected in 2017 and could sack Valls in the hope of making a fresh start. If that happens, Royal is the leading candidate to replace Valls at the prime minister’s office.

Royal has already become a central figure in Hollande's presidency. In January, he sent her to Jerusalem to represent France at the funerals of four Jews who were murdered during a jihadist attack on a kosher supermarket. Her presence annoyed foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who believed that as second in the government, he should have gone.

In February, Royal accompanied Hollande to the Philippines to raise awareness of global warming. Their complicity was obvious at a joint press conference. When the Germanwings flight crashed in March, Royal rushed to the scene of the catastrophe with interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve.

In April, she and Hollande together launched the Hermione, a replica of the frigate the Marquis de La Fayette sailed to join the American revolution. In May, she again accompanied Hollande on an official journey, this time to the Caribbean.

According to L'Obs, Royal has a direct telephone line to Hollande's office. The couple often have Sunday lunch at the Élysée with their four grown children. Royal sits to the right of Hollande at cabinet meetings. French media have taken to calling her "la vice-présidente" or "Hillary", an allusion to the US presidential candidate, whose relationship with Bill also constitutes an indestructible political alliance that was shaken by infidelity.

Trierweiler has observed Royal's return with sardonic detachment. "They're inseparable," the former first lady told Le Parisien newspaper when the paperback version of Merci pour ce moment, her venomous account of life with Hollande, was published in May. "It goes beyond their children. They share an immoderate taste for politics. Power is their reason to live, their shared obsession . . . There wasn't room for another woman in this story. Now they can be together, help each other and exploit the media and the power they both crave."

At present, it's as if France has two first ladies. Royal (61) is in the limelight as a semi-official consort and "queen mother". Julie Gayet (43) is the discreet presidential mistress who lives at the Élysée with Hollande.

For Royal owes both her fall from grace and her resurrection to Hollande’s fickle heart. As long as Trierweiler inhabited the Élysée, Royal was persona non grata. Trierweiler had been so jealous that during Hollande’s election campaign she demanded images and quotations from Royal be erased from campaign videos. Royal was literally airbrushed out of history.

After his election, Hollande reportedly offered his former partner the presidency of the Institut du Monde arabe, a prestigious ambassadorship or a post as an EU commissioner. She declined all, because she wanted to return to government.

Closer magazine revealed in January 2014 that Hollande has been riding pillion on a motor scooter to assignations with Gayet. Two weeks later, Hollande announced in a terse statement: "I have put an end to the life I shared with Valerie Trierweiler. " Trierweiler was evicted from the Élysée. The last barrier to Royal's political rehabilitation had been removed.

As ecology minister, Royal is embroiled in a power struggle with foreign minister Laurent Fabius for control of the COP 21 UN conference on climate change, which Paris will host next December. Hollande, who always attempts to reach a “synthesis” of opposing points of view, decided Fabius, the president of the conference, would lead diplomatic negotiations, while Royal would mobilise French public opinion and France’s European partners.

Rivalry between Royal and Fabius goes back to 2006, when she announced her candidacy for the socialist party’s presidential nomination.

“But who will look after the children?” Fabius quipped to journalists. He and Dominique Strauss-Kahn – who joked that Royal should have stayed home rather than read kitchen recipes during a debate on international politics – found it galling to be upstaged by Royal. She defeated both men in the November 2006 primary, winning 60.65 per cent of the vote.

Royal and Fabius attended the COP 20 climate change conference, in Lima, last December. She had left arrangements until the last minute, by which time all flights were fully booked. Hollande lent her the presidential jet. In Lima, she and Fabius did not hold a joint press conference. She departed early in the presidential jet, leaving Fabius and his delegation to fend for themselves on lowcost airlines.

More recently, Royal criticised the negotiations for which Fabius is responsible. "The UN negotiations are totally inadequate compared to the urgency of the climate situation," Royal told Le Monde. "We must change methods."

Royal has often been at odds with Anne Hidalgo, the socialist mayor of Paris. The ecology minister may have taken exception to past rumours about the nature of Hollande's friendship with Hidalgo. In any case, the women clashed repeatedly in recent months over Royal's crusade against what she calls "punitive ecology". Royal reversed Hidalgo's ban on wood-burning fireplaces in Paris and opposed severe restrictions on the use of cars during intense bouts of air pollution.

Royal built her political career on intuition, and issues that please the masses. Last year she abolished the unpopular “écotaxe” on heavy lorry traffic. It cost the French state at least €800 million to dismantle electronic gates on French highways and compensate the private company that was supposed to collect the tax.

When Royal first became a deputy in the National Assembly, in 1988, she made a point of asking where the creche was – there was none.

Her fellow deputies mocked her for specialising in “women’s issues”, but the public remembered Royal’s campaigns for lighter school satchels and paternity leave, against hazing, noise in school canteens, paedophilia, unsightly hoardings and violence on television.

Last February, Royal suggested the proceedings of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s trial for “aggravated pimping” (he was cleared in June) be closed to the press and public, to prevent children hearing the lurid details of Strauss-Kahn’s orgies. When Royal’s concern was mentioned in court, Strauss-Kahn laughed.

Royal has spent much of her life fighting macho men, starting with her late father, Jacques Royal. Lieutenant Colonel Royal treated his wife Hélène and eight children as if they were his troops. The family lived in Senegal, where Ségolène was born, and Martinique. Jacques retired early and became a travelling salesman, moving his family to a small village in Lorraine called Chamagne.

The Royal children were forced to attend Mass and catechism. "Very early I understood the unbearable contradiction between going to Mass and coming home and saying things that were anti-Semitic or contemptuous of women," Royal said in archive footage included in the psychiatrist Gérard Miller's documentary Ségolène Royal; the woman who wasn't a man.

Royal’s mother eventually left her husband, fleeing on a bicycle to Nancy, sleeping for several nights on a bench and working briefly as a cleaning lady to support herself. Legend has it Royal, then a fledgling law student, sued her father to force him to pay maintenance money to his wife and children.

“My whole childhood and adolescence, I heard my father saying, ‘Girls, you’re going to get married, not go to university,’ ” Royal said in the same footage. “I didn’t want to resemble the women in my family, women who were submissive in every way. I swore to myself: Never like my mother.”

Neither Royal nor Hollande ever married. For all her feminism, Royal enjoys a strongly maternalistic image. In her earlier incarnation as environment minister, she attended the 1992 earth summit in Rio while heavily pregnant and became the first French woman cabinet minister to give birth while in office.

Royal’s decision to invite television cameras to the hospital room where she stayed with her newborn daughter and fourth child, Flora, drew criticism. Royal said she wanted to show that women could be mothers and exercise important responsibilities.

In political office, she saw to it that contraceptives, including the “morning-after” pill were made available free of cost in French lycées (secondary schools for students from about 15-18 years old).

Royal enrolled at the university of Nancy against her father’s wishes, got a scholarship to Sciences Po in Paris, then attended the prestigious École nationale d’administration (ENA), where the French elite are educated. She met Hollande at the ENA, in 1978, the same year she joined the socialist party.

Both were from deeply conservative, Catholic, provincial families. He was humorous; she was serious. They were recruited to work at the Élysée when François Mitterrand became president in 1981.

For more than two decades, François and Ségolène pursued their political careers in tandem, without ever entering into competition. At Mitterrand's second inauguration in 1988, Royal audaciously asked the ageing president, "Couldn't you do something for me?" Mitterrand annointed her as the socialist candidate for the Deux-Sèvres department, prompting rumours Royal was his secret daughter.

Hollande and Royal were both elected to the National Assembly in 1988, when she was 35 years old. Their constituencies were 300km apart. In a now iconic photograph, the smiling couple stand in front of the assembly's columns, clutching their deputies' briefcases. Royal has long dark hair and wears a flowered suit. For years she dressed like a convent girl, in oversized spectacles and long Laura Ashley dresses.

"She was fascinated by Hollande," says the political commentator Alain Duhamel. "Sometimes I invited both of them to lunch. If she arrived first, she was talkative, interesting. When François arrived, it was as if she disappeared. She watched him. What mattered to her was what François said."

The balance shifted when Royal was elected president of Poitou-Charentes in 2004, becoming the only woman to head one of France's 22 regions.

Poitou-Charentes had been held by the right for 18 years, and was the home region of then prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Royal’s victory made her famous. She shocked the socialist party “elephants” or old-timers by leading a poll of potential presidential candidates. For the first time, she and Hollande were rivals.

As secretary general of the socialist party, Hollande endorsed the European constitutional treaty in the 2005 referendum. His ambition to become the socialist candidate in the 2007 presidential election was shattered when nearly 55 per cent of the French voted No.

As his partner of 27 years grew ever more popular, with his own career in a shambles, Hollande set out to seduce Trierweiler. The journalist and party leader were saying goodbye in the street after a rally in Limoges, in April 2005. Hollande “gave me a kiss worthy of a scene in a movie”, Trierweiler wrote later. “A kiss like none I had ever known.”

Royal learned of the liaison and asked Paris Match to take Trierweiler off the socialist party beat. A few months later, Royal gave an interview to Match. "May the best candidate win," she said.

Hurt pride may have been the engine of Royal’s presidential campaign, but she told no one she and Hollande had split up. “We thought Ségolène was living with her companion,” said Aurélie Filippetti, an adviser in the 2007 campaign and one of several young women politicians who were promoted by Royal.

“We saw nothing, knew nothing. She was so strong that she got through the presidential campaign without ever showing what she was going through.”

At the February 2007 rally where Royal presented her programme, the elephants sat in the front row snickering. They preferred that Nicolas Sarkozy won the election.

“Since the men in my own camp denigrated me, the French thought, ‘If they say such horrors, she mustn’t be any good,’ ” Royal later told French television. “There was no solidarity among socialists around my candidacy. Nobody said, ‘She’s intelligent. She’s competent. We’re 100 per cent behind her’ . . . I was alone. With the solidarity of my camp, I think I could have been elected.”

The mystical, Messianic side of Royal’s character came to the fore at her final election rally on May 1st, 2007. Christ-like in a white suit, she exhorted the 60,000-strong crowd to “Love one another”. Five days later, she lost to Sarkozy, 47 to 53 per cent. A few weeks later, she announced she had “asked François to live his life on his own”.

Royal wanted to replace Hollande as secretary general of the party, but the elephants ganged up on her and she lost the leadership to Martine Aubry in 2008.

When Royal came in fourth in the 2011 presidential primary, she wept in front of television cameras. Then, in an extraordinary act of forgiveness and political foresight, she rallied to Hollande, saying it was “noble to help the one who is in a position to win”.

Hollande and Trierweiler were already ensconced in the Élysée when Royal decided to stand for the National Assembly in 2012. Once she regained a deputy’s seat, she hoped to become president of the assembly. But Royal suffered her fourth devastating defeat since 2007, after Trierweiler posted a tweet encouraging socialists to vote for the dissident candidate who opposed her.

Today, Royal is again combative, energetic and deeply engaged in French politics. Regardless of how the UN climate change conference pans out, or whether she becomes prime minister, she has earned a place in history as the great survivor of the Hollande love wars.