PARIS (Reuters) - Rarely has a French politician risen as spectacularly as Segolene Royal, but inexperience and party divisions shattered her dream of becoming France’s first woman president.
Royal, 53, outwitted a string of male rivals to become the Socialists’ presidential candidate but questions hang over the party’s future direction after her defeat by conservative Nicolas Sarkozy in Sunday’s election run-off.
Hardly known to most voters only three years ago, Royal is a regional leader who captured France’s imagination with her glamorous looks as well as a string of proposals that broke with party traditions.
She initially basked in the media attention and photographs of her in a bikini appeared in magazines.
The honeymoon ended quickly when she made a series of foreign policy gaffes and colleagues attacked her, saying she was ignoring party traditions and was authoritarian in the way she conducted her campaign.
Royal has failed to unite a party that has been in crisis since the 2002 presidential election, when far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen beat the Socialist candidate into third place.
Her economic plans included an increase in the minimum wage and placed her firmly on the left, but she also defended positions that critics called “un-Socialist”. Some said Royal betrayed her roots when she courted voters who had supported centrist Francois Bayrou in the first-round vote in April.
“I’m a free woman!” became Royal’s battle cry to justify policies such as suggestions people should fly a French flag from their balconies on public holidays and a plan to send young offenders to military-style boot camps.
To mark her independence from the party, Royal set up her campaign cell on Paris’s leafy Boulevard Saint Germain, a few streets away from the Socialist headquarters. Her campaign colour was purple, the Socialists’ symbols are red.
Former colleagues openly called her campaign incoherent and said an authoritarian lurked behind her ever present smile.
Royal was embarrassed when media reported she was paying a wealth tax, shortly after her partner, party leader Francois Hollande, told a TV chat show he did not like the rich.
She also had to explain herself out of gaffes that included not knowing how many nuclear submarines France has, or for seeming to praise China’s justice system.
Born in Senegal in 1953, Royal and her seven siblings grew up in rural eastern France under an army colonel father.
The head-strong Royal studied politics against her father’s wishes. When her parents’ marriage fell apart, she helped sue her father to gain maintenance payments for one of her brothers.
At the elite ENA school for high-flying civil servants, she fell in love with student activist Francois Hollande. Both were recruited to work for Socialist President Francois Mitterrand.
Royal served in the environment, schools and family ministries, and had her breakthrough in 2004 when she was elected leader of the Poitou-Charentes region that had been the power base of the then conservative prime minister.