Ségolène Royal.
Ségolène Royal.
Image: Getty Images / Julien Mattia / NurPhoto

Paris, Wednesday, under leaden grey skies — four days after the riots last weekend, when thousands of protesters in yellow safety vests set cars ablaze, threw paving stones at police and stormed the Arc de Triomphe, the city is still in shock. But Ségolène Royal wishes to remind me why we are lunching in this corner of the capital’s 16th arrondissement: herself.

“It’s astonishing,” the former Socialist party presidential candidate says of the demonstrations against fuel taxes that have sparked the biggest crisis of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency. “I’m constantly in the media, even tonight — but I’m at the opera — because I’m one of the few who know the technical and political aspects” behind the protests.

“But hang on,” she says. “How does this [Lunch with the FT] work? ” She suggests we shift tack to her new book. Talk of “the gilets jaunes ... is becoming a bit heavy. It’s all everybody wants to talk about.” She takes a sip of a red fruit “detox” juice named “The Invincible”.

I meet Royal at the recently reborn Piscine Molitor, an Art Deco, mustard-yellow jewel of a building. The hotel is not far from her home, and she comes here regularly to swim. We are seated in a small salon with dark green velvet curtains and red chairs, at the side of the covered winter pool. Stylish in a teal-coloured trouser suit, Royal has just complained about the lack of a tablecloth. I lift my glass of “Antidote” detox off the table as contrite young waiters rush to put this right.

A fixture of French political life for 30 years, Ségo, as my university friends and I used to call her, most famously ran against Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential run-off in 2007. Sarkozy sought to get the French to embrace money and success. Royal offered them citizens’ consultations, fraternité and “win-win” solutions to their daily problems. Sarkozy won and went on to become “President Bling-Bling”, while Royal was left facing a party of resentful, mostly male Socialist grandees — the “elephants”.

This species is now virtually extinct, courtesy of Macron. Once a protégé of François Hollande, the former Socialist president who is the father of Royal’s four children, Macron seized on widespread defiance towards traditional parties, the fear of a resurgent far-right and an astounding alignment of stars to win the presidency last year as a centrist.

Royal is a survivor of the “old world” decried by Macron’s party En Marche (On the Move). After her presidential defeat, she was forced on to the margins of the Parti Socialiste and resolved to back Hollande’s presidential ambitions — despite his affair with another woman. Hollande appointed Royal as environment minister, but only after the other woman had decamped from the Elysée Palace following another affair. Throughout it all, Royal has remained popular, lately gaining media attention with a book — Ce que je peux enfin vous dire (“What I Can Finally Tell You”) — in which she defends her legacy and settles scores with former party colleagues, including her ex beau. Many of them fear that she might actually be plotting a political comeback.

The noise of children laughing and calling their parents reaches us from the background, as the pool fills with more energetic lunchtime swimmers and the waiters take our orders.

As France tries to make sense of the gilets jaunes, a grassroots, leaderless movement born on social media as an uprising against fuel tax rises, she delivers her wisdom with a typical no-nonsense bluntness. “It’s quite simple. People have had enough of taxes,” she tells me, after I have reassured her that it’s her I will be writing about. She pins the start of Macron’s troubles on his decision to increase levies on pensioners after scrapping the wealth tax for the richest. She feels vindicated by the unfortunate events that have ensued.

“I was flabbergasted when they did this, I know this is very sensitive,” she says. “It’s as if there’s no one with any experience in this government. They wanted to do fuel taxes when I was environment minister, but I said no. Never would I have done that in the name of the environment.” Her Macron-appointed successor, environmental activist Nicolas Hulot — who stepped down last summer — “caved in”. “It’s crazy, you don’t mess with taxes,” she says. Macron’s propensity for gaffes — about the historic French resistance to reform, or when he suggested to an unemployed gardener that he “cross the street” to find a job — have made things worse, she says. “It’s not mean, he has a forthright manner of talking, but the problem is how this is perceived.”

The government’s decision, the day before we meet, to scrap the planned fuel tax rise is “late”, Royal says, because the far-right and far-left have already seized on it. The Macron gang should have listened to her: “I told them to give up before the first protest. But they didn’t move. They have an obsessive fear of backtracking. You know, ‘En Marche’ and so on. Did you see the headlines?” she chuckles. (She is referring to this week’s Le Canard Enchainé, the satirical newspaper, which declared “En Marche arrière” which means “reverse gear”.) Another chuckle: “Did you see Trump’s tweet?” The US president has also expressed his delight at Macron’s retreat. “I mean when things go wrong, sometimes everything goes wrong.”

If it had been a woman in the Elysée [during the protests], it would have been violent. People would have said, ‘She is crazy, she is stubborn, get her out'

Serious again, Royal narrows her eyes and whispers: “It says a lot about politics and about being a president. And by the way, if it had been a woman in the Elysée, it would have been violent. People would have said, ‘She is crazy, she is stubborn, get her out’.”

She is scathing of Macron’s technocratic government of unelected experts, who get “picked up by their drivers in the morning to go to their ministries”, spend their weekends in their country houses, and do not know what campaigning for an election really means. Royal turns suspicious again, her smile vanishing: “Tell me, how is this going to work? Can I review the quotes? I will have to see them. Because I don’t want to fall into a trap.”

Our sea bream carpaccios, sprinkled with red onion and hazelnut, fresh and acidic on the palate, provide a welcome distraction as I politely push back. Royal can instantly go from affable to irritable. She is known for standing her ground even if she gets her facts wrong — whenever I am caught doing the same at home, my partner tells me to “stop doing a Ségolène”. I sense this is a long-acquired defence mechanism.

In her book, she explains how, as a female politician, she had to fend off sexist remarks and humiliations in parliament — “mad cow”, “get naked” — and how, as the Socialist candidate, she faced a coalition of men in her own party who viewed her as an “intruder” and actively wanted her to lose. “Who’s going to look after the children?” former prime minister Laurent Fabius famously said when she decided to run for president. She has welcomed the #MeToo movement, which has spread from the US and morphed in France into the nastier cry of #balancetonporc (“rat out your pig”).

Like many women of her generation, her battle is rooted in childhood. Born in 1953, one of eight children of an army lieutenant-colonel, she was not destined to go to university, let alone pursue a career. As a result, perhaps, she attributes many of the world’s woes, including global warming, to testosterone and the absence of female leadership; she sees that, too, in Macron’s stubbornness in dealing with the gilets jaunes.

Her book does not spare Hollande either. She has “forgiven but not forgotten”, she writes. The former Socialist president comes across badly at times. When she unexpectedly blocked France’s approval to renew the EU’s authorisation to use glyphosate, a weed-killing chemical, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, called her: “Hi Ségolène, I had François on the phone, he told me to call you direct,” she recounts. “I imagine the two of them, talking to each other: ‘You call her’; ‘No, you call her’,” she says.

She also remembers the time when Hollande, whom she never married, pretended to ignore sexist comments from his finance minister Michel Sapin and another of his colleagues directed at an Italian female minister during an official visit to Italy. She sees male conspiracy in her former partner’s decision to offer the post of France’s foreign minister to loyalist Jean-Marc Ayrault in 2016, after having promised it to her. “At the last minute, the men united. They thought: ‘We don’t control her, I am brighter than them, I know my dossiers better, and if by some misfortune I would prove better than them ... Let’s stay in our mediocrity’,” she says. “When someone is afraid to be surrounded by bright people, it means they are weak. I never was. I always surrounded myself with young, bright people. Some of them betrayed me, but that’s life.”

She was not always the victim. I inquire about her bold approach to François Mitterrand, begging the former president to give her a constituency right after his election for a second-term — a moment caught on video. “Please can you do something for me?” she asked, as she and Mitterrand shook hands in the Elysée Palace. The president was visibly irritated. “A bit late,” he snapped — candidacies had to be submitted that day — but the instructions were given. This graduate of the École Nationale d’Administration, the hyper-selective grande école that grooms students for the heights of the civil service, was parachuted in to fight a difficult seat in the west, taking the place of the man previously picked by the party. Unexpectedly, she won.

“I have rarely asked for things in my life,” she says. “I was seeing young people of my generation running and I thought, why not? ... I had three little kids at the time, it was audacious to go to the depths of the countryside. It was a sort of impulsion.”

She says she has no regrets. “I was efficient, I never betrayed or lied or said things I didn’t believe in. And I am still here ... I have always done the maximum I could do in my missions. I have always organised my time, set objectives ... I have a big working capacity. That’s fulfilling.” She cites the landmark Paris accord on climate change she helped organise with Fabius in 2015 as one of the recent achievements she is the most proud of, even though she is “appalled” by Trump’s decision to withdraw from it.

As our main courses are being served — cod for me, scallops for my guest, grilled cauliflower with curry spices as sides for both of us — I ask if Royal thinks Macron’s presidency is in peril, less than two years into its five-year term. The pro-EU leader is deeply unpopular and is nicknamed “president of the rich”. Elsewhere in Europe, Eurosceptic populist forces are surging.

“No, everything can be reversed,” she says. “Politics is the most unforeseeable art. He could well rise up to something that may happen. Politics is about seizing the present, knowing how to react to unexpected events.”

But the “Jupiterian” president must change his style of governing, she warns. Macron’s flagship labour market decrees, which he hailed abroad as proof that France could be reformed and the plague of high unemployment curbed, are “completely useless” and have brutalised the country. Royal sides with the Socialist MPs who rebelled against a previous labour market bill under Hollande.

“I believe a country should not be run with laws and decrees, it’s completely outdated.” She says modern politics is about striking deals: “There’s so much you can do to improve companies’ competitiveness. Why not allow them to save energy costs, for instance? It would create jobs.”

Macron’s strategy of pitting pro-EU progressives against Eurosceptic populists is also a bad idea, she reckons. She herself sought to capture growing distrust for the established parties in 2007, she says, by reaching out to the centre. But the transpartisan approach is only a phase, she adds. “If you erase the differences between the right and the left, then people will choose the extremes, because it’s the alternative option.”

Royal is distracted by a text message. She types a response while inquiring about Theresa May. “Is she going to resist?” she asks. “Who would replace her? Boris Johnson? Quelle horreur! I find her very courageous. I tweeted when she was attacked by all these guys, when she struck her Brexit deal.”

Our waitress offers dessert. We both pick small round lime tarts — the highlight of the meal, as sweet and sour as our encounter. The gilets jaunes may be planning more protests, but Royal is savouring the moment. A recent survey has suggested she would be centre-left voters’ top choice for next year’s EU parliamentary elections. She is open to offers — but not from the moribund Socialist party, which is courting her. “It’s amusing. I am jubilant,” she smiles. “It’s quite a reversal.”

- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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