Why Royal Flopped

Nicolas Sarkozy's victory over Socialist candidate Segolene Royal in the French presidential elections wasn't a surprise. For a week, nationwide polls showed the UMP's (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) Sarkozy well ahead of Royal. But the decisive victory of "Sarko" (as Sarkozy's called in France) means that the Socialists of France have now lost three consecutive elections; their latest beating helps underscore just how little power they have had in France since the end of the Second World War. "What is the difference between a rout and an honorable rout?" wondered the headline today in El Pais, the Socialist newspaper in Spain.

The worst such "rout" for the party, of course, came in 2002, when in the first round of voting the Socialists were relegated to 3rd place, behind the extreme right-wing National Front, led by Jean Marie Le Pen. Segolene Royal was supposed to be the fix to the embarrassment of 2002; she was billed as the bright, fresh new light in the French political scene -- just what her party needed. But from the beginning, she, and by extension the party that never fully got behind its own candidate, traded too much on her femininity and not enough on the substance of her platform.

Profiles ran in women's magazines highlighting her beauty, her style, her traditional yet modern lifestyle (the whole "four kids, never married" bit). She dressed in white and, for the first time for a Socialist, adopted the nationalist iconography of Joan of Arc. Yet Segolene's lack of institutional support and her own early mistakes made her seem less a fresh new approach to Socialist leadership than trussed up window dressing on a party that badly needs a shake-up in its messaging, goals, and approach.

A series of gaffes undermined her credibility early on. It began, publicly at least, with foreign policy. Here Royal's mistakes ranged from caustic, if fleeting, rhetorical dismissals of the United States to serious lapses in knowledge -- she seemed not to realize the Taliban were no longer in power in Afghanistan, for example. On a December trip to the Middle East, she failed to challenge a Hezbollah MP who compared Israeli policy to Naziism. Later she provoked ire by acknowledging that she supported "sovereignty and liberty" for Quebec -- a comment that led many to believe she supports the Quebecois secessionists.

But beyond foreign policy lacunae, she and her party seriously misjudged the mood of the country regarding work, immigration, youth, and gender. Her appeals to women -- highlighted in the debate last week where she talked about how "tired" women are after 35 hours of work -- were ignored. They seemed at best condescending, and at worst blatant appeals for voter support based solely on her gender. (She actually lost the female vote).

But perhaps the most shocking lapse in her campaign was the way it blithely bypassed the people that might have helped it most: the immigrants and so-called "second" and "third" generation French who were so angered by Sarkozy's hardline policies as Interior Minister under Jacques Chirac. In a 24-page platform that Royal’s camp released in February, barely two paragraphs focused on immigration -- and they did so only vaguely. Only one sentence addressed Sarkozy’s controversial plans to create a selective immigration policy based on work and quality criteria. The Socialists could have run with the issue -- teeing off, for example, Sarkozy's calls for deporting school children without residency papers (something that horrified much of France last spring, as the rhetoric surrounding it smacked of Holocaust-era terminology). Royal and her party simply failed to sufficiently take up the cause of integration, even when Sarkozy appeared afraid to physically enter the urban suburbs that have caused France such concern over the last few years.

"The French Left has an inexplicable discomfort with ethnic and religious diversity," says Jonathan Laurence, a professor of political science at Boston College and the co-author of, most recently, Integrating Islam: Political and Religious Challenges in Modern France. "They have become the stalwart defenders of a neutral citizenship and secular society, while the Center-Right under Sarkozy has taken over the old fight for the 'droit à la difference.' Ironically, even after Sarko called the youth in the suburbs "scum" and blasted polygamy and female circumcision in ways obviously calculated to win votes through a type of French identity politics that far right National Front supporters could rally around, he managed also to successfully play the children-of-immigrants card. He spun himself as an outsider -- not French by blood, but now an integral part of the fabric of France. That he was able to do this speaks more to the Socialists' failure to challenge him on these points than his own pro-immigrant bona fides.

Laurence, who is also an affiliated scholar at the Brookings Institution, points out a number of recent historical moments where the Socialists botched opportunities to gain ground with immigrants. "The Socialists couldn't seal the deal with the French Council for the Muslim Religion; the Socialists failed to bring in second-generation immigrants into government between '97 - '02, and the Socialists couldn't even get an anti-discrimination agency off the ground. Instead, Chirac's center-right governments did all this … I think the Gaullists' taunts back in the '80s and '90s traumatized the Socialists into thinking that integration was a losing issue."

When third party candidate Francois Bayrou entered the election late in the game, many "good" Socialists defected to him, knowing that they could crawl back after the first round of voting, hold their nose, and vote for Royal. But, contrary to Socialist Party hopes, Bayrou's votes in the second round split evenly between the two candidates. Last night on BBC, chastened French Socialists murmured about the need for radical self-analysis, for a re-envisioned party line, perhaps even for a "New" Socialist party, as Tony Blair promised to make a "New" Labor party twelve years ago.

Sarkozy, meanwhile, despite his hardliner image, turned out to be the one to pull off the seemingly impossible: the castration of the far right in France. In the days before the election, Jean Marie Le Pen called for his National Front supporters to boycott the election. He was ignored. "For the first time a right-wing candidate has united the entire right -- including the extreme right," said the commentators of TV5Monde last night, with no small degree of admiration.

"I will vote Ségo, but of course not FOR her but against SARKO," one friend wrote me in an email after the first round of elections. "I voted Bayrou, like many 'socialists.' Good elections, a very bright and euphoric day in France, as a celebration of democracy, for a renewal, people queuing one hour to vote. But I am not convinced by the candidate; and I am a little bit scared by Sarko." That sentiment was everywhere. And in the second round, the centrist Sarko supporters were those who felt, whatever their reservations about him, that Royal's meanderings simply didn't add up to leadership.

For the Socialists one can only hope that last night's rout -- honorable or not -- will finally be the jumpstart the party has been waiting for. People have already started looking to June's Parliamentary elections and anticipating that a strong mobilization of the base in the wake of Sunday's loss could result in "cohabitation" -- a joint Socialist -UMP government with a Socialist Prime Minister. That could happen. But as a party, the Socialists need to look beyond June.