She’s 52, a mother of four, and possibly the next president of France. Helena Frith Powell analyses the allure of Ségolène Royal
In France, being over 50 is no excuse not to be sexy and Ségolène Royal – tipped by some to be the first female president of France – promises to be the hottest thing on the international diplomatic circuit since Joan of Arc, six centuries ago. This week, the readers of France’s FHM voted her the sixth sexiest woman in the world and few of us were surprised.
Ségo, as we call her in France, is a different, altogether more seductive creature than the dumpy hausfrau Angela Merkel, the new German Chancellor. This is a woman who wouldn’t look out of place on a catwalk despite what she lacks in stature (she’s just 5ft 2) and has been dubbed the ”Socialist in Stilettos” and ”Madame Charisma”.
When I met her recently in her office at the National Assembly in Paris, she was, inevitably, running late. It gave me a chance to snoop. On a round table in the centre of the room there was a notepad, a pen – and lip- gloss.
Ségo is not someone who goes far without a lip-gloss. And now it looks like she may be going very far, perhaps all the way to the Elysée Palace. She has just edged ahead of the main Right-wing contender, Nicolas Sarkozy of the UMP, in the opinion polls and so is within with a chance of the presidency next year.
She is not just a shrewd political operator though, she also has a French woman’s unique way of using her femininity. She arrived at our meeting in a grey fitted suit with a cream silk shirt and a bright yellow silk scarf designed to cut a swathe through a National Assembly dominated by elderly and grey-suited men. She looked fabulous. Her nails and shoulder length dark hair are immaculate. Her skin is flawless, her smile bright. The secret of her glowing appearance, she told me, is “sleep”.
I asked her how she has managed to juggle a successful career with having four children. “Now that they are a bit bigger, they look after each other,” she said. “I think that’s one of the advantages of having so many.”
At 52, Ségolène looks more like the editor of a fashion magazine than a politician. She makes no apologies for taking care of her appearance. “I represent a region,” she says. “I can’t just put on jeans and running shoes. I have to be well presented at all times.”
There is something undeniably sexy about a woman in power and Ségolène embodies it. We may not agree with President Mitterand’s assertion that Margaret Thatcher had ”the mouth of Marilyn Monroe” but some of her cabinet were certainly in thrall to her.
Consider other women who seem to get better looking and sexier as their political careers have flourished. Hilary Clinton, for example. How dowdy was she at the start? It’s always amazed me that Bill ever noticed her in the first place.
Now, aged 58 and Senator for New York, she looks and acts like a film star with her perfectly cut hair and slinky suits.
At 51, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is another example. As she globe trots, meeting and greeting heads of state in those expensive jackets, knee-length skirts (designed to show off her slender legs) and burgundy lipstick, you have to admit, she looks a hell of a lot better than Jack Straw. No wonder he seemed mesmerised by her.
I can’t understand why political parties don’t make more of women. Or maybe it’s the women who don’t make more of politics. Ségolène is out to change all that in France.
When she announced to Paris Match magazine late last year that she was considering running for the presidency, few took her seriously. No one could have predicted what an explosive development this would prove to be in a French political scene that was static but now looks electric.
Sex symbol or saviour of France, Ségo has raised the stakes in the 2007 election campaign by unveiling policies that will drag France’s venerable socialists kicking and screaming into a new political era that looks uncannily like a French version of Blairism. In an interview with the Financial Times, she even expressed admiration for Tony Blair, as much a figure of derision in France as he is in parts of England.
Her forthright views are, predictably, leading to her being dubbed “France’s Iron Lady”. She has criticised the socialists’ sacred cow, the 35-hour week and promised a crackdown on law and order including military training for violent youths. Her arch-rival Sarkozy has even referred to her as “a decent candidate for the Right”.
As well as Blair, Ségo is also hoping to copy Bill Clinton in his ”triangulation” method; fitting in between the Left and the Right. The parallels with Clinton and Blair don’t end there. This is a woman who is very aware of the power of the media. In the last month she has graced the cover of countless magazines, including Elle and Madame Figaro. She is exploding the myth of the traditional French woman as either mistress or mother. She is not only tapping on the glass ceiling but threatening to blast her way through it.
Her male socialist colleagues don’t like it a bit. This is ironic, because her partner, and father of her four children, Francois Hollande, is leader of the Partie Socialiste and may stand as a candidate next year alongside Ségo. On hearing about her political ambitions, Laurent Fabius, a former prime minister, sneered: “Who will look after the children?”
Powerful men have always been sexy but powerful women are still something of a novelty. Now, even France’s boring old socialists must get used to them – especially Monsieur Royal as Ségo’s partner is now being dubbed. As Colonel Nathan Jessep says in the film A Few Good Men: “There is nothing on this earth sexier, and I mean this, than a woman you have to salute in the morning.” Monsieur Royal has no idea how exciting life is about to get.
- Helena Frith Powell’s ‘More France Please, We’re British’, is published by Gibson Square and available for £9.99 + £2.25 p&p. To order please call Telegraph Books Direct on 0870 155 7222