Ségolène Royal is Not Willing to Be a Footnote

July 6th, 2013

Martin Bureau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Ségolène Royal, above in 2012, has written a book of essays about courageous individuals.

With a new book, the former French presidential candidate Ségolène Royal is trying to reverse what Le Point Magazine described as her “slow descent into hell.”

Ever since Ms. Royal lost the 2007 election that would have made her France’s first female president, the glamorous career politician has not had it easy. The year after her defeat to center-right stalwart Nicolas Sarkozy, she tried unsuccessfully to become leader of her Socialist Party. When she made another run for the presidency in 2012, she lost badly in the primaries.

At least that time, the winner was a fellow Socialist: François Hollande, her longtime companion and the father of her four children. But by then, Ms. Royal had also lost him. And another woman, Valérie Trierweiler, a journalist for Paris Match, is now France’s première dame. (Yes, she had covered Mr. Hollande for the magazine.)

Then things became even worse for Ms. Royal. She failed to win a seat in the National Assembly last year, losing in the primaries to a party up-and-comer who famously received the endorsement of none other than Ms. Trierweiler — who tweeted her support. That indiscretion embarrassed President Hollande, rocked the Socialist Party and sent Ms. Royal into the political wilderness.

She kept her elected post as president of Poitou-Charentes, an Atlantic coast region hundreds of miles from Paris, added a nonpaying job as the No. 2 at a new public bank to promote investment, and was named one of the best-dressed women over the age of 50 by The Guardian newspaper. Nonetheless, Ms. Royal, 59, had become a footnote to history.

What to do? The same thing politicians everywhere do when they want (or need) attention: write a book. Consider the three books each that Mr. Hollande and Mr. Sarkozy published before their successful presidential bids.

Ms. Royal’s book, her 10th, is titled “Cette Belle Idée du Courage” (“This Beautiful Idea of Courage”), a collection of essays on individuals selected for their bravery, from Joan of Arc to Nelson Mandela, and including such French feminist heroes as Olympe de Gouges, famous for declaring in 1791 that the “Rights of Man” should also apply to women. Since a woman has the right to mount the scaffold, the French revolutionary said, she should equally have the right to mount the podium. Making her point, she was guillotined two years later.

In the sleek office that Poitou-Charentes maintains in Montparnasse area of Paris, Ms. Royal said she started the book a year ago, just after her legislative defeat, to respond to the question that people frequently asked: “How are you able to continue, in spite of everything?”

She sought an answer in the lives of the men and women the book profiles. She calls them passeurs of courage (those who pass it along), people who challenge convention, overcome fear, face adversity and “pull themselves back up.”

Even in talking about her defeats, Ms. Royal looked radiant. Her fuchsia lipstick matched her wrap dress, which she wore with an off-white jacket and lavender print scarf. She claims to favor no particular designer at this point. (Paule Ka dressed her in prior years, leading some wags to observe, “The devil wears Paule Ka.”) Now she dresses in whatever she feels like and shops everywhere, including at a nearby H&M.

Ms. Royal said she learned a lot in writing the book. Though she continued to smile, her blue eyes narrowed as she recounted how she was “destabilized” by the hatred her political enemies showed her. She also learned “the destructive power of jealousy,” claiming that some male contemporaries in her party never forgave her for beating them to the presidential nomination. One Socialist leader called her a “second-rate politician,” while another speculated that if she became president, “Who would take care of the children at home?”

As for those children, two sons and two daughters now in their 20s, Ms. Royal dedicated the book to them, citing their “courage and inexhaustible cheerfulness.” Though they are interested in politics, especially her older son, Thomas, who was active in both his mother’s and his father’s presidential campaigns, Ms. Royal said that it’s “up to them to decide” their careers. “They are not disgusted by politics,” she said. “That’s important for me, because they have lived through a lot.”

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