France's Sarah Palin

Ségolène Royal is polarizing her country’s Socialist Party—and leading its revival. Eric Pape on what the French Rogue can teach Republicans about 2012.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: A beautiful, attention-grabbing high-profile politician is stirring up big trouble in her party. She’s got passionate supporters whose backing is partly predicated on the premise that she can overcome the party’s desperate straits. How? Through maverick political stands, an ability to relate to normal folk, a “hotness”-based charisma, and a stunning ability to grab and hold the limelight.

Peillon argued that her political style is undermining party efforts to lay the seeds of victory, replacing it with a sort of “tabloid-ization.” She is, he added bitterly, “in need of major psychiatric care.”

Here are a few more hints: She’s a lightning rod for controversy, ambitious, a proud mother many times over, and she can come across as narcissistic in front of the wrong microphone. Gaffe prone? You betcha—like when she lauded China’s justice system for its efficiency. But her highest profile action was surely helping to sink her party in a national election that was within reach. And if the stars align, she might just do it again.

The candidate in question is Ségolène Royal, who nearly became France’s first female president in 2007 but was defeated by Nicolas Sarkozy. While her political packaging may bear many similarities to Sarah Palin, their politics are almost diametrically opposite. (For one, Royal is a true rouge socialist.) But their impact on their down-and-out political parties may turn out to be nearly identical.

Consider this: The Republicans and France’s Socialists have both been reduced to weak, if vocal parties that seem incapable of agreeing on constructive policy. But as the Socialists struggle to shape a credible alternative, the greatest immediate distraction—even if it can easily be mistaken for an attraction—may be the rogue who just won’t go away.

Just look at what happened at the Socialist Party gathering in Dijon this month. The organizers specifically asked that likely future presidential candidates (like Royal) not attend, while they attempted to forge the elements of a broad political alliance that could bring everyone from France’s political center to its far left together to win regional elections and later to evict the current right-wing president. The gathering was one in a series of small steps back from the brink of near irrelevancy for the Socialists, who have lost three consecutive presidential elections. It also came after two and a half years of absurd divisions, barely coherent opposition to Sarkozy, and an internal party-leadership election that Royal barely lost amid fraud allegations on both sides.

But recent weeks have brought glimmers of sunlight, including polls showing the Socialists staging a comeback. President Sarkozy’s once-disciplined party began to rebel and he has proved unable (or unwilling) to fulfill key campaign pledges, spurring his approval ratings to sink to their nadir. In the short term, all the Socialists had to do was to focus their fire at the struggling president.

And that’s when Rogue Royal crashed the no-presidential-aspirants gathering in Dijon—with a television crew. Yes, she was trying to make a point. Her former campaign lieutenant Vincent Peillon, who organized the Dijon event, was furious, suggesting that her egocentrism—some people refer to it as “segolenism"—is squelching party development. “This is a sad spectacle. Stop, Ségolène!” Peillon said on Europe 1 radio on Wednesday. “I cannot let myself be intimidated by someone who doesn’t come to create, who doesn’t come to help, but who destroys in endless quarrels.” He suggested in another interview that Royal had no right, after bringing on 20 catastrophes, to continue to “play the victim.” He argued that her political style is undermining party efforts to lay the seeds of victory, replacing it with a sort of “tabloid-ization.” She is, he added bitterly, “in need of major psychiatric care.”

“I didn't do anything wrong,” a willfully innocent Royal said on France Inter radio in reply. “I only went to meet the party activists who, by the way, were all delighted to see me.” A passive-aggressive Royal claimed that she was “bruised” by the “very aggressive” attacks. Other prominent Socialists called the spat “absurd and pathetic” or "appalling.” They sensed what the polls soon showed: that the latest episode of the Sego Show squandered a year of hard-earned party progress. A fresh poll by the BVA firm quantified the damage: 62 percent of voters say the Socialist Party is back where it was a year ago.

Another survey brought bad news of a different sort. The only Socialist who currently beats President Sarkozy is the economic heavyweight Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who heads the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. (which allows him to stand majestically far from his party’s chronic internal sniping). Unfortunately for him—and for opposition hopes of victory—Royal has already proved that she can beat the technocratic Strauss-Kahn in a Socialist popularity contest, as she did to earn the 2007 Socialist nomination. The question is: Will she take aim at another presidential candidacy in 2012?

Meanwhile, there are few indications that Royal (or Palin, for that matter) is working to overcome the sort of experiential shortcomings that she showed during the last campaign. Neither has either, for example, shown meaningful signs that they are boning up on foreign policy or economic policy, gaps that more traditional candidates might aim to fill in thanks to high-profile tutorials.

But the clearest sign about Royal’s plans may lay in her last defeat. After garnering the votes of nearly 47 percent of her nation’s electorate—about the same as the McCain-Palin ticket—Royal’s response was that it wasn’t bad for a first run. (Her party’s leadership shuddered.) The American rogue, amid her complaints about Republican strategists’ restraints, might also feel that a more free-range candidacy and just a little more exposure might get her to the next level.

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Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek magazine since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel Shake Girl . He has written for the Los Angeles Times magazine, Spin, Vibe, Salon, Los Angeles and others. He is based in Paris.