Richard Reeves

Beauty and the Beasts of France

PARIS -- Here are some numbers on the leading candidate for president of France in next year's election: approval rating, 73 percent; party voters who say they will vote for the front-runner, 68 percent; number of front-runner's children born out of wedlock, four; rank among the world's sexiest women, sixth.

The politics of the day makes it hard to leave France right now. Last week, Socialist deputies physically charged the elegant and arrogant conservative prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, during a debate on employment laws after Villepin shouted at the Socialist leader, Francois Hollande: "I denounce Mr. Hollande ... looking at you, I say, cowardice. Cowardice!"

Both Villepin and Hollande would like to be president, but their stars and chances have been dimmed by events and the new front-runner's many charms and American-style campaigning. Villepin, who looks like a French leader should, has been badly wounded, probably terminally, by the suburban rioting of poor young people looking for jobs, and urban riots by upwardly mobile students who object to any changes in legislation that diminish what they see as their birthright of guaranteed employment. Hollande is not a particularly exciting person, and he also has four children out of wedlock.

Back-tracking for a moment, the front-runner's name is Segolene Royal, a former deputy, former junior minister and president of the Poitou-Charente region, not a particularly powerful job. She is 52, quite attractive in the French way, of which there are few better. She has lived with one man for 30 years without benefit of marriage, although they have filed a "pacte civil de societe," a non-religious contract of partnership. Le Parisien, a popular journal, described her this way: "She plays on her beauty by wearing skirts rather than trousers. She wears youthful hairstyles. Who would think she was over 50?"

One of her Socialist rivals for president, former prime minister Laurent Fabius, sniffed, "Who will look after her children?"

Perhaps Hollande will. He is their father, the man Royal has lived with all these years. It's as if Bill and Hillary were both running for president. "Tsunami Segolene," she is called by the magazine Marianne. A poll by the newspaper Figaro showed her one statistically insignificant point ahead in a general election campaign against the conservative front-runner, the law-and-order interior minister, Nicholas Sarkozy. Finally, the magazine MHF, in a poll of its readers, ranked her the sixth-sexiest woman in the world, just behind Angelina Jolie and just ahead of Liz Hurley.

This all began in April, when Royal told the magazine Paris Match that she was thinking about declaring for president of the republic in the Socialist conventions and elections running up to next year's general election. More than that, she moved to the right of her party, questioning the effect of violence on television and the effectiveness of the 35-hour work week, a jewel in the dented, fallen crown of her party's last leader, Leon Jospin. More provocatively, she talked about a resumption of universal military service to deal with France's problems with youth unemployment and assimilation of migrants.

That brought a comment from Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose political savvy is better than his racist politics. "Sarkozy is a man of the right who always wanted to please the left, and Royal is a false woman of the left who thinks of herself as an American Marine sergeant."

(The Figaro poll shows Le Pen with 12.5 percent of the all-party vote, compared with 32 percent for Royal, 31 for Sarkozy and just 4 for Villepin, President Jacques Chirac's chosen successor as leader of the United Conservative Parties.)

Well, Royal doesn't look like a Marine sergeant -- though her father and grandfather were military men -- and if she did, there would not be all this media excitement. "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," quipped the satirical investigative journal Le Canard Enchaine. She may be a meteor flashing by, but there is also a serious possibility that France is ready for the "Third Way" politics that elected "conservative" liberals Bill Clinton in the United States and Tony Blair in Great Britain.

We shall see. Certainly Snow White is a lot easier to watch than dwarfs like Sarkozy and Fabius.

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