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The French Mistake

 Honestly, I never thought Sego-lene had a chance.


I 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 for her.

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 female president?

It’s a question worth raising as the United States swings into high gear for the 2008 election. Are we ready for a female president?

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.

“That Hillary,” one of them said, with thorough-going contempt, “she’s a bitch.”

“Yeah. 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 and incendiary.

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.

“She 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.

—Jo Page

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