What is this power that Segolene Royal has over the base of the Socialist Party? As I tweeted, she received a standing ovation that is likely to far outweigh that afforded to other speakers, perhaps even the Prime Minister, who speaks tomorrow morning. In contrast to the other big female hitter in the government, Christiane Taubira, about which more is said here, she also manages to unify strands of the party base in a way that no one else can.
It wasn’t always thus. This was the big comeback. After a year absent from La Rochelle, she was reminding us all, and in particular the party chiefs, that she remains a force to be reckoned with. In 2012, her dreams of becoming Speaker of the National Assembly were shredded by a defeat in the legislative elections when Olivier Falorni, former local party leader in La Rochelle, stood against her and won, thanks to a general Rochelais sense of independence (see the history here!) and an anti-Royal campaign by the right. That followed a humiliating score in the open primary in 2011, where she made the tearful discovery that the general public (at least, those who voted in the primary) had turned the Royal page and no longer saw her as a Présidentiable. She retreated, as in 2007 following her unsuccessful presidential run, to her region of Poitou-Charentes, and it was in this capacity that she welcomed us yesterday with a striking speech. I sat there thinking, “why is this woman not in the government or running the party?”. And then she reminded me.
Royal in person is impressive in many respects. She radiates confidence and competence. She makes people, simply by her presence, feel confident and optimistic. As usual, her speaking style was rather lumpy, with her fussy pronunciation sometimes occulting her message. But there were sufficient moments of original thought, ideas that you don’t hear elsewhere, to give the whole thing a swing that lacks among the Socialist leadership, save perhaps President Hollande on a very good day. She spoke best when calling on a rethink of the way central government works with local government, but did so in a concrete and non-technocratic way. She was repeat with examples and anecdotes that flesh out her thinking. The crowd lapped it up.
Later that evening, however, the other side of her character was unleashed, and as is often the case, it was to the press. When faced with journalists, Royal seems unable to distance herself from the press’s central premise about her: the eternal victim. First she was the presidential candidate foisted on the party chiefs in 2007 by an unruly base. She was excluded, plotted against and so forth. She left her then partner, the now President, and the soap opera that is often her personal life reached new heights. Stories that some have linked back to her, emerged in the press of the arguments between Royal and Hollande and the rift that had developed between Hollande and his own children. Then in 2011-2 she was done over again by the primary process, and then the right voting for the dissident candidate in La Rochelle.
Royal’s paranoia was on full display during a private press briefing she gave atop one if the towers that dominate the Vieux Port of La Rochelle. As the sun set over the picturesque harbour, Royal claimed the government had deliberately undermined her by planning their own meeting at the same time. She criticised the overall communications strategy of Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, and then mused, when a helicopter flew overhead, that “they” we’re spying on her, armed with microphones.
Whilst the press reportedly looked on amused, she further delved into the narcissism that so often betrays one of the most effective communicators the party has. On coming to power, the problem of what to do with the President’s ex was allegedly a major headache for the new government. Whilst there are so many things she could do if she could reign in her destructive tendencies, whilst she shows no signs of being able to control herself, her place is perhaps right here, in Poitou-Charentes.