At François Hollande’s presidential campaign rally in Rennes, France, on Wednesday night, the official word was, “Politics. Not fairytales.” But this Socialist rally was never going to be politics as usual. All eyes were on one special guest, Ségolène Royal, the defeated 2007 Socialist candidate, who just happens to be Hollande’s ex-partner and the mother of his four children. The first round vote is April 22, the run-off May 6, and Hollande still leads incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in head-to-head polls. But party platform battles weren’t the main draw in chilly Brittany. “Ooh, un bisou! They’re going to smooch!” one veteran French reporter clapped giddily offstage as France’s onetime ultimate power couple drew together before an overflow crowd of 18,000.
Kiss, they did not—or at least not onstage, with twice the usual press turnout looking on from the wings and live coverage on 24-hour news networks. But Hollande and Royal’s long-awaited show of unity was made to mark a symbolic end to myriad, deep, embarrassing divisions that ended Socialist hopes for election in 2007 and made the party a laughing stock for years. It was the Socialist Party’s political mea culpa and, as one Le Monde editorialist put it, “Royal’s revenge.”
The story of François Hollande, 57, and Ségolène Royal, 58, is probably unique to any modern democracy. They met in 1978, classmates at the prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration, France’s foremost training ground for the political élite. But the affable doctor’s son from Normandy and the Dakar-born wallflower daughter of an authoritarian army officer—both promising young leftists escaping far-right-leaning fathers—became close during a school internship in a rough Paris suburb.
When François Mitterrand, to this day the only Socialist to win the French presidency, was elected in 1981, the pair were recruited together as young Elysée Palace advisors; Hollande primarily on economic matters, Royal on social and environmental issues. Both were elected to parliament in 1988. Royal would be named cabinet minister three times. Hollande would spend 11 years as Socialist Party chief from 1997. The couple never married, but through whirlwind careers had two boys and two girls (Thomas, 27, Clémence, 26, Julien, 23, and Flora, 19).
Royal has even played good cop, bad cop, with Hollande, calling Sarkozy out in no uncertain terms on corruption allegations while the Socialist candidate hangs back.
Ahead of the last French presidential election, in 2007 the couple had already secretly split after 25 years together when Royal made an unexpected bid for the party’s nomination. (Sexist critics would later suggest her bid was entirely to spite her ex.) With her people’s touch and maverick instincts, Royal drew massive grassroots support in the 2006 Socialist primary, crushing party bigwigs like future IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and former prime minister Laurent Fabius, the latter reportedly quipping, when Royal expressed interest in running, “But whoever will mind the children?” (The latter, present in Rennes and a favorite for foreign minister if Hollande wins, has denied the phrase, but it entered the lore on the condescension Royal faced within her party.)
Through the long, nasty presidential campaign that followed, Royal in her iconic white skirtsuits elicited remarkable popular fervor. At rallies, fresh red roses, the Socialist Party’s symbol, thrown by supporters would glance off the podium and cascade to her feet as she spoke. She would become the first French woman ever to make it to the run-off of a presidential election. Marginalized voters, from the working-class immigrant-rich banlieues that ring French cities, would turn out to vote for her en masse. She had glamour and style, but modest roots; she used the internet innovatively to elicit mass input and her wide gamut of ideas cherry-picked right-wing standbys like patriotism and security for the left.
But Royal never did earn the support of Socialist elites (although Hollande himself did stump for her). Her artisanal campaign, a bid mounted outside the party structure, was ultimately doomed against Sarkozy, a master campaigner at the head of a well-oiled political machine. Sarkozy won handily, 53 percent to Royal’s 47. After the legislative elections that followed, Royal revealed she had asked Hollande to move out, free to pursue a romance—all but confirming the rumors (spread, in at least one case, by an operative of Sarkozy’s UMP party) that Hollande was living with Valérie Trierweiler, a political reporter who had long followed the Socialists for the glossy weekly Paris Match.
Royal’s 2008 bid to succeed Hollande as head of the party would fail, too, by a miserly 102 votes out of a total 135,000, sending the Socialists into a new crisis amid allegations of voter fraud. And just as the party finally seemed poised for a comeback in 2011, with Strauss-Kahn demolishing an unpopular Sarkozy in polling ahead of a possible run for the Elysée Palace, the former IMF chief’s contentious 10-minute encounter last May with Times Square Sofitel chambermaid Nafissatou Diallo sparked all-new psychodrama.
Hollande, once a longshot polling at 3 percent for his party’s 2012 nomination, rose to replace Strauss-Kahn as the favorite. He beat five Socialists, including Royal, in an open primary last October. Royal’s tears as she conceded defeat became a fixture in the 24-hour news loop. Days later, as she endorsed her former partner for the nomination—widely praised as a classy move—she stressed the difference between public and private decisions. But conceded, “It’s true that I am in a situation that is unusual, that isn’t banal. But I cannot repudiate my life with François Hollande. Indeed, you must admit that this couple’s record isn’t all that bad, with four children and two presidential candidates.” (In response, Trierweiler, 47, tweeted an “homage to Ségolène Royal for her sincere, unselfish, and unambiguous endorsement.”)
Flash forward to 2012. Hollande leads Sarkozy in head-to-head polls with weeks to go, but he is losing imputed voters and momentum to the charismatic far-leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round. And there is a real risk of a record level of abstention that could make the polls moot; through rough economic times, France has lost still more faith in its politicians and, anyway, the elections fall during spring break. Royal is seen as a charismatic draw for the disenfranchised. In Rennes on Wednesday night, she spoke of assembly-line workers treated less well than their machines and paid impassioned tribute to France’s working-class districts. Hollande, a social-democrat specialized in fiscal policy, is seen as more discreet and technocratic, regardless of his real talent, on display in Rennes, for working a crowd with humor, his clever gibes directed at Sarkozy with a keen sense of comedic timing.
Despite an egregious faux-pas that saw Hollande leave Royal out of his campaign kick-off speech in January, she has buried the hatchet and led rallies in support of Hollande, campaigned door-to-door and in rough neighborhoods alongside their son Thomas, inaugurated the candidate’s web radio, and given a joint interview to a glossy weekly with the couple’s youngest daughter, Flora. Royal has even played good cop, bad cop, with Hollande, calling Sarkozy out in no uncertain terms on corruption allegations while the Socialist candidate hangs back.
In a TV interview last month, Royal suggested Sarkozy was “afraid to lose because he will lose his presidential immunity” from prosecution. Rivals from far-right leader Marine Le Pen to Greens’ candidate Eva Joly, a former judge, agreed with her. The pro-Sarkozy conservative daily Le Figaro calls Royal “a sharpshooter.” (If Hollande is elected, Le Figaro stresses, Royal is openly interested in being named Speaker of the House.)
On Wednesday night in Rennes, for a time, Royal was once again center stage. Upon her arrival, under a cloud of cameras and fuzzy boom microphones, Royal said she would be “passing the torch to the person who today can win.” She spoke about setting aside personal ambitions to help the Socialist best placed for victory. And she added pointedly, “We have the collective force today and that’s a good thing. When the Socialists are united, they win; when they’re divided, they lose. And now we know that lesson.” In his speech, Hollande struck a similar note. “Ségolène Royal is here, too, as a symbol of unity, the unity that was missing in 2007, and that is here now, strong,” he said, before outlining in great detail what he will do with his first moments and months in office, if he is elected.
Backstage in Rennes, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a Hollande campaign spokeswoman who had the same role in Royal’s 2007 campaign, talked about the lessons learned from the last campaign and boosted the new united front. She told The Daily Beast, “I think 2007 was a waste. I think we could have won.” Will the parade of unity make a difference this time? Rendezvous May 6.