Saturday, August 8, 2009

Harriet Harman and Ségolène Royal: sisters under the skin

Harriet Harman's political style, if nothing else, recalls the bossiness of French socialist Ségolène Royal.

Segolene Royal
Ségolène Royal: a firm believer that the state knows best Photo: Reuters

What is it with Socialist women politicians and their seemingly uncontrollable urge to give feminism a bad name? As part of the improbable duo left in charge during Gordon Brown’s Scottish staycation, Harriet Harman managed the feat of making Lord Mandelson seem like a safe pair of hands. Between criticising men (“they can’t be left running things on their own”) and turf-brawling with Jack Straw’s mandarins over the announcement of new measures for rape victims, Miss Harman certainly made a lasting impression.

Love her or hate her, you can’t ignore her. In fact, that seems to be the plan – to make herself so omnipresent, whether out of genuine conviction or tactical positioning, that her ascension to the leadership becomes inevitable.

Yet one Continental example should serve as a warning. Ségolène Royal, the French Socialist, rammed her candidacy for the presidency through her party’s primaries with exactly the same combination of ostentatious feminism and obsessive self-promotion. Whenever she was rebuked for one of her numerous gaffes (from praising the “speed” of the Chinese law courts, to being hoaxed by a comedian into supporting Québecois and Corsican independence, to getting the number of French nuclear submarines wrong), Royal blamed the attitude of men – whether her adversary, Nicolas Sarkozy, or her own party grandees – faced with a female candidate.

Soon, any question she didn’t wish to answer was brushed aside angrily on feminist grounds. “You wouldn’t dare pose such a question to a man,” she spat at a bemused New York Times reporter who asked her to outline her foreign policy.

Like Harman, Ségolène comes from a privileged background. The daughter of a career officer, she was educated in select Catholic schools. Again like Harman, her accent combines the populist vowels more often heard from shop stewards with the preachy – occasionally downright messianic – overtones of the Sunday sermon. She attended ENA, the elite government school that has produced eight of France’s last 15 prime ministers, two of six presidents, almost half the cabinet and almost the entirety of the civil service elite.

ENA does produce competent people, but they are often accused, with good reason, of being detached from everyday reality. Few “énarques” have any experience of the private sector; far fewer are entrepreneurs. They have abstract notions of what it means to meet a payroll, and are great believers in social engineering and that the state knows best. Sound familiar?

Of course, Ségolène differs from her British counterpart in one crucial aspect – although blessed with a good figure and a lovely oval face, there has been much speculation that she underwent radical cosmetic surgery to firm up her jaw, accentuate her cheekbones and give her a radiant smile. (She has never commented, but comparing the cover of an early autobiography raises certain questions.)

The British don’t object to their women politicians looking more schoolmarmish than glamorous, and they might mistrust the kind of unmarried glamourpuss who, after a hard-fought campaign, kicks out the father of her four children, and gets chased by the paparazzi during the holidays she spends with her new beau. Over the Channel, it’s a non-issue. Even among French feminists, some attention is paid to looks and to fashion.

On the other hand, Ségolène, like Harriet, has few women friends and supporters. Her colleagues find her arrogant and unpredictable: her feminism is on her terms only. More reticent (and competent) female politicians are known to complain in private that Ségolène’s grandstanding sets back women’s political advances. “She fabricates issues where progress had already been achieved,” Michèle Alliot-Marie, one of the Sarkozy government mainstays, has complained.

But as both Harriet and Ségolène might tell you, when you’re a self-proclaimed champion of women everywhere, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2009

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