Has France fallen in love with a new mistress? It very much looks like that from and not just because the readers of France’s FHM have voted Ségolène Royal the sixth sexiest woman in the world. Ségolène Royal looks likely not only to be the first female president of France but also the hottest thing on the international diplomatic circuit since Joan of Arc. In France being over 50 is no excuse not to be sexy.
Ségo as we call her in France, is in a different, altogether more seductive class than the dumpy hausfrau Angela Merkel, the new German Chancellor. This is a woman who wouldn’t look out of place on a catwalk. When I go to meet her in her office at the National Assembly in Paris she is inevitably running late. This gives me a chance to snoop. The phones are constantly ringing, people run in and out. On a round table there is a notepad, a pen and a 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. This woman is turning French politics upside down. She has just edged ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy in the opinion polls and so by anyone’s reckoning stands a good chance of being the next President of France, is not just shrewd political operator but she has a French woman’s unique way of using her femininity.
She walks in to our meeting wearing a grey fitted suit with a cream silk shirt and the sort of bright yellow silk scarf to cuts a swathe as she strolls though a National Assembly dominated by elderly and grey-suited men. She looks great. Her nails and hair are immaculate. Her skin is flawless, her smile bright. The secret of her success, she says, is “sleep”. I ask her how she has managed to juggle a successful career with having four children. “I don’t, it’s an ongoing process,” she says. “Now that they are a bit bigger, they look after each other. I think that’s one of the advantages of having so many.”
Ségolène looks like the editor of a fashion magazine or a successful television producer. 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.
When she announced to Paris Match magazine late last year that she was considering running for the Presidency few took her seriously. Almost no one could have predicted what an explosive development this proved to be in a French political scene that was static but now looks electric.
Sex symbol or saviour of France, Ségo has now raised the stakes in 2007 election campaign by revealing policies that will drag France’s venerable socialists kicking and screaming into a new political era looking uncannily like a French version of Blairism. And her forthright views are leading to her being dubbed “France’s Iron Lady” or the “Socialist in Stilettos”. 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 and likely candidate for Chirac’s centre-right UMP party Nicolas Sarkozy has even referred to her as “a decent candidate for the right”.
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.
As well as Blair’s methods, Ségo is also hoping to copy Bill Clinton in his triangulation method; fitting in between the left and the right, thereby taking votes from the right without alienating the left. The parallels with Clinton and Blair don’t end there. This is a woman who, lip gloss in hand, is extremely aware of the power of the media. In the last month she has graced the cover of countless magazines in France including Elle and Madame Figaro. She is exploding the myth of the traditional French woman as either mistress or mother. This is a woman who is not only tapping on the glass ceiling but threatening to blast her way through it.
Her male socialist colleagues don’t like it. This is ironic, because her partner, and father of her four children Francois Hollande, is leader of the Socialist Party. Laurent Fabius, a former prime minister, one of the non-descript grey men who has dominated France’s socialist party for so many years, sneered; “Who will look after the children?” on hearing about her plans to run for president.
For some reason it’s all right for men to have lots of children and still dedicate their lives to politics. Maybe it’s time women were allowed to do so too. There is something undeniably sexy about a woman in power. We may not agree with Chriac’s assertion that Margaret Thatcher had lips like Marylin Monroe but there are women who seem to get better looking as their careers flourish. Take Hillary Clinton. How dowdy was she? It’s always amazed me that Bill ever noticed her in the first place. Now she looks like a film star with her perfectly cut hair and slinky suits. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is another example. As she flies around Europe meeting heads of state wearing expensive jackets and burgundy lipstick you have to admit, she looks a hell of a lot better than Jack Straw.
I can’t understand why political parties don’t make more of women. Or maybe it’s the women that don’t make more of politics. But faced with lunch with Charles Clarke or Ségo I know which I’d choose. At least she wouldn’t eat my lunch as well as her own.
Powerful men have always been sexy. I remember my father telling me that if he had a pound for every woman he’d met who was desperate to sleep with Onassis he’d be a millionaire. “And the man looks like a goat,” he would add furiously. Powerful women are something we’re just beginning to see. And I think even France’s boring old socialists might get used to them, especially Monsieur Royal as her partner Francois Hollande 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. If you haven’t gotten a blow-job from a superior officer, well, you’re just letting the best in life pass you by.” Monsieur Royal has no idea how exciting life is about to get.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019