Ségolène Royal staging umpteenth comeback in French politics
Politician’s new book takes aim at Macron, former partner Hollande and sexism
Ségolène Royal is a veteran of 30 years in French politics. She was the first woman in France to make it to the runoff in a presidential election. Photograph: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images
If there were a prize for sheer dogged indestructibility in French politics, Ségolène Royal would surely win it.
The first woman to make it to the runoff in a presidential election, Royal was defeated by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007, then lost a whole string of elections before her former partner, then president François Hollande, rehabilitated her by making her minister for the environment in his last government.
President Emmanuel Macron hoped to keep Royal far from Paris when he dispatched her to the Arctic and Antarctic in a furry parka as his “ambassador for the poles”.
It has been a rocky road, but Royal is staging her umpteenth comeback. She has settled accounts in a new book, What I Can Finally Tell You, and has rocketed in opinion polls. The 293-page text praises a few good men, but excoriates far more, including Hollande and Macron.
“Women in politics: surviving in a man’s world” is the title of the first chapter. A veteran of 30 years in French politics, Royal says women endure “insults, acts of violence, [sexist] vocabulary, the problem of managing one’s private life, the lack of solidarity [from one’s own party and from other women], people minimising one’s knowledge and, doubtless the most serious, the questioning of our intelligence and even our mental health”.
Royal served four terms as a deputy in the National Assembly. For more than two years after she was elected in 1988, doormen stopped her at the entry to ask whose secretary she was. The list of sexist insults runs to five pages, including a deputy who shouted “Strip naked!” the first time Royal rose to speak. Laughter rippled through the amphitheatre. No one, not even the speaker of the Assembly, spoke out. On another occasion, Royal was referred to by a colleague as “the mad cow”.
“Such behaviour would be punished today, it must be admitted,” Royal writes. “They wouldn’t dare anymore, even if some still think that way.” Yet only 2½ years ago, at a Franco-Italian summit in Venice, Royal heard two fellow cabinet ministers deride an Italian woman counterpart with the words, “She’d be good for other things than politics.” Royal rounded on them saying, “Look at yourselves, you poor fools!”
Royal equates ill-treatment of women with disregard for the environment. “The vocabulary is the same,” she writes. “Women and nature are damaged, aggressed, sullied, raped, victims of predators, exploitation and abuse.”
Royal says she has “forgiven but not forgotten” the Socialists who made her life a misery. When the former prime minister Lionel Jospin telephoned her to offer her the job of junior minister responsible for families, he said, “I thought that with your four children you’d be able to do it.”
The late former prime minister Michel Rocard called on Royal just before the deadline for declaring her candidacy in the 2007 election. “You won’t make it. You have a few hours left to withdraw,” Rocard told her, demanding that she step down in his favour.
Jospin published Dead End shortly after Royal’s defeat. The title refers to her campaign. He condemned Royal’s theory of “participative democracy” as the “infantilisation of political life” and criticised her for basking in applause as if in “a ceremony of adoration”.
Royal says she thought Macron was different, but he too disappointed her. “The deficit of dialogue, authoritarianism, solitary decision-taking and weakened parliamentary democracy have led to the same errors [as under previous administrations],” she writes.
Royal condemns the “boorishness” of Macron’s team, recounting how, on the eve of his December 2017 “One Planet Summit”, the Élysée rang to disinvite her to the official lunch the following day. “Not even Sarkozy would have stooped to such pettiness,” she writes.
Some of the sharpest stabs are at Hollande, with whom Royal lived for nearly 30 years, and with whom she shares four children. Numerous journalists learned of his “betrayal” and “bigamy” with the Paris Match journalist Valérie Trierweiler before she did. Royal suffered “the violence of adultery” and wishes she had ended the relationship at the beginning rather than at the end of her presidential campaign. “Running a campaign in that situation, hoping every day it would end, was a terrible trial,” she writes.
After twice competing for the Socialist presidential nomination, Royal and Hollande are again rivals. His book, The Lessons of Power, has sold 100,000 copies since publication eight months ago. Royal’s sold 16,000 copies in 10 days, according to her publisher.
“I’m going to return,” Hollande said a week ago. Two opinion polls indicate that Royal is now the most popular figure on the French left. The moribund Socialist party hopes she will lead their list in next May’s European parliamentary elections, but Royal is playing hard to get. She may prefer to stand as an independent environmentalist.