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Royal back in spotlight after painful absence

© AFP

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2013-02-21

After a string of personal and political defeats that ushered in a months-long silence, Ségolène Royal has been named to a high-profile position. But the one-time French presidential nominee has been given no grace period by her opponents.

One-time presidential nominee Ségolène Royal had virtually disappeared from France’s political stage for the past eight months. But she returned with a bang this week after being named vice-president of the country’s nascent Public Investment Bank (BPI).

After her dream of becoming majority leader of the National Assembly was smashed during the June 2012 legislative elections, the 59-year-old politician retreated to her quiet and unobtrusive post as president of the Poitou-Charentes Regional Council.

Her comeback is as sudden as it is controversial. On Wednesday, France learned that Royal would take part in the BPI’s first board of directors meeting, after she was designated as the bank’s VP on the eve of the gathering.

Overseeing a 42-billion-euro budget, the new bank is meant to offer loans to small and medium-sized French businesses and has been one of President François Hollande’s flagship economic initiatives.

“As BPI’s vice-president, the former socialist MP, who had four children with François Hollande, has again risen to a position of importance,” the left-wing daily Libération declared on Thursday.

Accustomed to unforgiving scrutiny, Royal has led her own public relations operation over the sudden and high-profile appointment.

Pre-empting accusations she had been awarded special favour, Hollande’s former partner told the AFP news agency on February 21 she had been nominated for the top job by a group representing France’s regions and not by the government. Her role would in large part be that of a spokeswoman, she explained.

Deflecting questions about financial compensation, she wrote on Twitter: “On BPI’s board of directors, exemplary behaviour: unsalaried position and oversight of expenses”.

Hopes routinely dashed

It remains to be seen if Royal’s new post at the BPI can help her prosper politically, but the announcement was a bit of good news following a long succession of embarrassing setbacks.

Royal rose to international fame in 2007 during her bid to become France’s first woman president. She won the Socialist Party nomination, but her bid ended in defeat, drawing anger from some allies who accused her of running a campaign separate from the party.

That election flop also marked a bitter break up with François Hollande, then Socialist Party chief, her partner of 30 years with whom she had four children.

The following year, Royal pushed to succeed her former partner at the head of the party, but lost out to long-time Lille Mayor Martine Aubry in an internal ballot poisoned with accusations of vote rigging.

The next blow to Royal’s political ambitions came in 2011, when she garnered less than 7% of votes from party members in presidential primaries, far less than had been forecast by opinion polls.

She sank even lower, losing the June 2012 legislative elections to a dissident Socialist candidate in the northwest city of La Rochelle. In what became a national scandal, Hollande’s new partner, first lady Valérie Trierweiler, publicly endorsed Royal’s rival via Twitter.

Accusations of left-wing cronyism

While Royal’s appointment to the BPI abruptly thrust her back into the spotlight, observers said her months-long political absence was sprinkled with hints of an eventual return.

“Regarding her future, [Royal] said she wanted to ‘remain at the service of her country’, meaning she hoped to return to the forefront of French politics,” Le Monde wrote on February 20, recalling an interview she gave to the leading French daily in October 2012.

Her prominent new job has also quickly become the subject of harsh criticism, directed at both her and Hollande’s government.

“Even if her previous investments, especially in the Heuliez group, do not make her a good candidate for the job, we are happy to welcome our new banker,” former conservative prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said mockingly, in reference to an insolvent auto builder that failed to find a new buyer in 2010 under Royal’s stewardship.

In a statement to the press blasting “deal-cutting between socialists”, Michèle Tabarot, secretary general of the main opposition UMP party, said that “after shaking their finger at the right, the Socialists are multiplying partisan appointments.”

France’s Royal will likely face similar and loud censure –as well as some praise– as she steps into her new shoes. Can she turn the attention into political gain? The only certainty now is that she has won a new lifeline.

Date created : 2013-02-21

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