Royal Touch

The French have been watching sego-lène Royal's irresistible political rise with a combination of rapture and disbelief, if not downright wonder. Now it's the world's turn. Who is this woman who never held a senior cabinet post but rode a tide of "Ségomania" to overwhelm her opponents and seize the Socialist Party's nomination for president of the republic? How could a once rather drab junior minister suddenly emerge, in her early 50s, as a radiant public performer? Her supporters have embraced her as the incarnate image of change, a break with the past. But what sort of transformation can she bring to a nation where it often seems les jours de gloire are gone forever?

For now, answers are elusive. But beginning soon, France's April 22 presidential election will become topic A for Europe--and much of the rest of the globe. Can she or her strongest opponent, right-wing Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, wrench the French out of their decades-long torpor and help turn the continent into the powerhouse it aspires to be? Is it "Ségo" or "Sarko" who can bring real growth without destroying the country's cherished social programs? Who can best deal with France's (and Europe's) daunting immigration issues? The upcoming French election season, as it unfolds, will be as much about Europe as France itself.

The continent's freshest face is hard to recognize, ideologically. Royal often sounds as if she's taken pages from the right, hinting at tougher treatment of criminals, questioning the sacred 35-hour workweek, discarding the doctrinaire cant of more classic socialists. Venturing recently into foreign affairs, she takes a much tougher line against Iran, and a softer one on Israel, than any French administration in the last quarter century. Details are vague, and critics call her naive. (Sarkozy, early on, ridiculed "the cosmic void of Madame Royal's discourse.") But advisers suggest privately this is according to plan. Royal's strategy: to be seen "listening" to the people--and learning--before detailing her programs in February or March.

France's old-boy elite--left, right or center--simply does not know how to respond. When she first publicly expressed an interest in the presidency, one asked: "Who will mind the children?" A former right-wing minister painted Royal as a political bimbo. ("Too much container and not enough content.") Still others chided: "This is not a beauty pageant." Royal has mocked those lines again and again, getting cheering audiences to share her disdain for the disdainful.

Who can blame them? If most French politicians like to cast themselves as policy wonks, Royal's campaign catchphrase, "participatory democracy," taps into the real emotions of real people. By contrast, the old guard comes across as uncaring, out-of-touch has-beens. "It's not only that the others don't know how to confront her," explains Jean-Louis Bianco, a Royal adviser. "It's that they don't understand that she is inventing another way to do politics."

Ask any Frenchman what he will vote for in April, and he's likely to answer change--all the more so if that happens to be a she. Like Royal, Sarkozy understands this yearning for a new face. But meeting that challenge is harder for him, as head of the ruling party and a top cabinet minister. His hope is to brand himself as a new species of can-do guy, with ever-ready energy and (importantly) the experience to push through tough market-oriented economic policies needed to help France break free of its economic troubles without compromising the job security and social-welfare benefits the French have come to expect.

So far, Royal hasn't let herself be drawn into this debate. Within months, however, she will have to. Will she be able to stand up to the rigor of Sarkozy's campaign-trail cross-examination? Will the compromises and trade-offs that go along with choosing this or that policy over others bring her polls down? (She's currently running even with Sarkozy in opinion surveys, 50 percent each.) After all, she cannot expect to go on being all things to all people. That transition will mark her true political test--and all Europe will be watching.