I never thought Sego-lene had a chance.
was disappointed, but not surprised that Segolene Royal lost
the French election to her right-wing opponent, Nicholas Sarkozy.
The news media are awash with conflicting analysis and prediction:
Sarkozy will re-establish France as a global player; Sarkozy
will alienate the Arab world; Sarkozy will trim government
subsidies and stem inflation; Sarkozy will undermine the generous
safety net the socialist economy provides for its citizens.
Meanwhile, it’s all good news for the United States. Though
Sarkozy says the U.S.-led Iraq war was a mistake, and has
urged the United States to take a leading role in fighting
global climate issues, he is an overall admirer of the American
can-do spirit. And he assured President Bush that the United
States is able to “count on our friendship” as he steers France
in a sharply more conservative new direction. France is ready
for a change, he keeps saying.
But Royal’s campaign wasn’t change- oriented. Instead, she
campaigned along traditional Socialist party lines, calling
for better schools, less unemployment, no racism, gender equity.
As these are pressing issues, why change course? And though
the Socialists haven’t had significant wins in years, her
star rose quickly in her male-dominated party. Plus, it seemed
she found strong support among France’s minority and younger
populations; she certainly curried the women’s vote. On top
of that, she had real charisma and was, at one point, nicknamed
“the Madonna of the polls.”
But as George Bush recently put it: “I’ve been in politics
long enough to know that polls can just go poof sometimes.”
It seems the polls apparently had gone poof. Voter turn-out
for the French election was 85 percent—a number we can only
dream of—but the results were unequivocal. Sarkozy won, 53
percent to 47 percent. Not a landslide for him, but a falling-rocks-zone
What happened? Why did the Madonna of the polls lose the election?
Could it be the left had lost touch with French citizens?
Had rank-and-file Socialists never really cottoned to her?
Had people voted for Sarkozy out of fear?
Or was it—at least in part—that France wasn’t ready for a
It’s a question worth raising as the United States swings
into high gear for the 2008 election. Are we ready for a female
Well, I would sure like to think so. But I don’t think so.
Britain could do it. Germany did do it. But France couldn’t.
I would love to be proven wrong, but I don’t think we can
do it, either. I know Americans love women. But we don’t love
them that way. As heads-of-state, I mean.
I still hear the two men talking at the diner table next to
mine when Hillary Clinton was making her first Senate run.
Hillary,” one of them said, with thorough-going contempt,
“she’s a bitch.”
I hate the goddamn woman.”
I swallowed hard around a forkful of homefries. I didn’t want
to look at the next table for fear of saying something stupid
It happens that I think “bitch” is a really horrible word.
However we might try to domesticate it as cultural argot,
the truth is “bitch” is the “N” word for women. And that’s
really the whole point. Because these men were not bad-mouthing
Hillary Clinton because she was politically manipulative or
not too bright, like some we have several times more-or-less
elected. They were bad-mouthing her because she was a woman.
The worst kind—a bitch. Worse still, she was a woman seeking
power (as opposed to status, which is OK for women to seek
because that’s what men with power offer).
Because shouldn’t women understand their own particular brand
of power—or lack of power?
After all, Segolene was the darling of the polls. Thin, tall
and striking, with cheekbones on loan from Jacqueline Bisset,
last summer’s copious coverage also showed us that she was
a 53-year-old woman with absolutely no reason to fear a bikini.
True, she caught some flak for wearing high heels when she
visited Chile (from whom? her chiropractor?). But the French
edition of the men’s magazine FHM ranked her sixth
among the world’s sexiest women, not far behind Angelina Jolie
and well ahead of Jennifer Lopez, Penelope Cruz and Elizabeth
Hurley. Maybe Estee Lauder is in the market for a new face.
plays on her beauty,” said French sociologist, Georges Chetochine,
“She wears light clothes—never dark. Her well studied make-up
is pale as well, in order to light up her face. She wears
dresses, not trousers, and has a young hairstyle: How would
you know she was over 50?” (I am not yet 50, but I suppose
I should be taking some notes in case I run for elected office.)
I know, I know. All of this is supposed to be kind of charming
and flattering. And it is—until it turns ugly. As when, not
so long ago, Hillary Clinton’s opponent, John Spencer, suggested
that she had had some face work done. Or that a female politician’s
good looks are the result of the kind of beauty overhaul Ms.
Clinton has apparently inaugurated—Segolene Royal and Nancy
Pelosi are cited as cases in point. Women should be somewhat
beautiful and somewhat powerful. But never both.
Though by that logic, where is the defeat in Royal’s defeat?
Didn’t she score where it really counted? Doesn’t she have
a powerful man who is almost-but-not-quite her husband? So
where, actually, do her priorities lie?
Royal is not some hair-shorn, war-torn virgin Joan of Arc.
But she may be just another hard-working woman plodding the
path of liberte and egalite, still prey to the excesses of
that bandit, fraternite.