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Royal becomes French president’s first ally

Ségolène Royal, at the Ministry of Environment in Paris by Magali Delporte© for the Financial Times©Magali Delporte

Ségolène Royal, pictured for the Financial Times at the environment ministry in Paris

Ségolène Royal says her bluntness has been a potent weapon as well as her trademark during a three-decade political career that brought her close to becoming France’s first female president.

It helped her as early as in 1988, shortly after winning her first seat for the Socialist Party at the age of 35. Ms Royal applied for the vice-presidency of a parliamentary committee investigating the mad cow disease.

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“This is great, we’ll have a mad cow in the bureau,” the committee president joked sparking laughter from colleagues. “Better a mad cow than an old pig,” she snapped back.

“I already had repartee back then,” the 62-year-old Ms Royal, now energy and environment minister, says with a chuckle. “Nowadays, this man’s behaviour would be impossible in public. But sexism still exists — in politics as much as anywhere else.”

Ms Royal’s straight-talking manners, political longevity and experience as presidential candidate — she lost to Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 — are among the traits that have made her a popular figure of French politics.

Since being appointed minister in 2014 by President François Hollande, who is the father of her four children, her former partner and university classmate, she has reached a unique position in power — not quite a first lady (Mr Hollande and Ms Royal separated when she ran for president), more than a close ally, yet an independent thinker who speaks her mind.

Now, with approval ratings double that of the deeply unpopular French president, she is expected to play an instrumental role in his attempts to win back the hearts of disaffected leftwing voters to get reelected next year.

“With her presidential run in 2007, she’s a household name, more so than most of the presidential hopefuls in the right and left,” says Laurent Bouvet, a political sciences professor at Versailles university. “She’s an asset, and Hollande is making sure she’s on his side.”

Ms Royal shuts down when asked about Mr Hollande and the next presidential elections: “I’m not saying anything on this.”

French President Francois Hollande (R) greets French Environment minister Segolene Royal during the inauguration of the new organic market hall at the International Food Market, in Rungis, south of Paris, on May 9, 2016. / AFP / POOL / Christophe Petit Tesson (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON/AFP/Getty Images)©AFP

Ségolène Royal earlier this month with François Hollande, French president and her former husband

But her appeal to leftwing working class voters and the environmentally minded would help the president mend fences with an electorate who feels betrayed by the government’s midterm pro-business shift, according to Francois Miquet-Marty, a pollster at ViaVoice. “She is vital to unify the different factions of the left,” says Mr Miquet-Marty.

Ms Royal defends Mr Hollande’s legislation intended to insert a dose of flexibility in the country’s labour market. It tore the socialist party apart, sparked union protests and forced the government to use decree powers to bypass parliament earlier this week. It was an attempt to “better take into account the constraints of companies while maintaining employees’ rights,” she says.

“We need to make companies more agile, but the problem is, they don’t always have virtuous behaviours,” she adds.

Ms Royal, who became a member of the socialist party in 1978, when she entered ENA — the elite school that grooms France’s top civil servants and where she met Mr Hollande — criticises the market-oriented approaches pushed by Emmanuel Macron, the 38-year old economy minister who has emerged as a potential rival to Mr Hollande for next year’s presidential elections.

She dismisses Mr Macron’s views that too much work protection and regulation have created a world of insiders clinging to their long-term jobs and benefits at the expense of outsiders who struggle on temporary contracts or make up France’s 10 per cent unemployed.

“I do not share this vision, which is a bit backward looking, because with this kind of reasoning, you end up resenting the railways workers just because they managed to secure some rights,” she said.

“You don’t want all workers to become precarious; ideally you want all the employees with secure jobs.”

The daughter of a navy colonel who divorced her mother and left her in charge of eight children, Ms Royal says the rise of the far-right National Front is due to “a fear of identity loss, the disintegration of families, massive migratory movements, climate change.”

“It is the fear of losing an idealised past for a future unknown that no one can draw,” said Ms Royal, who chairs the UN’s climate change conference and as such is the guardian of last year’s Paris accord. “It’s the increasing inequalities, with the poor who get poorer, the middle class that stumbles and the wealthy who get wealthier.”

Feminism has also been a constant feature in her career. Ms Royal says she always picks the female candidate among two equally skilled applicants. She says she was instrumental in the choice of Isabelle Kocher as head of Engie, the state-backed gas supplier. Ms Kocher is the first French female chief executive of a CAC 40 company.

“If she had been a man, it’s not certain that she would be there,” Ms Royal says. “It’s a shame that women who succeed don’t use their success as a symbol for the other women. I’ve always said that I was here too to open doors for women.”

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