Update 30/11: this article was first published before Ségolène Royal announced her bid to become Soacialist Party presidential candidate in elections due in 2012.
Just one year ago, Ségolène Royal, the former French Socialist Party presidential candidate who lost to Nicolas Sarkozy in the final round of voting in 2007, was circling a political wilderness.
Increasingly criticised and ostracised by many Socialists since her 2007 defeat, after which she fought and lost a bitter battle for party leadership to Martine Aubry, her supporters were pushing for her to break away and forge a new political identity.
It was a bleak situation for Royal, who has never hidden her ambition for leading a second attempt for the presidency in the next elections due in May, 2012.
But now Royal, 57, in a remarkable comeback orchestrated over just several months, has returned to the bosom of France's main opposition party. The timing is of course anything but accidental, coming eight months before its presidential hopefuls will all have to declare themselves as candidates for selection in primaries, due in November 2011. With unity the party order of the day, Royal has negotiated a public peace with those she was formerly pitted against.
"Her return to the fold of the PS, which began last May with the 'winning plan'1 proposal, is the fruit of several months of reflection," said her spokesman, Guillaume Garot. "But it is also a lesson drawn from what she was missing in 2007, when the Socialist Party apparatus was against her which made winning the presidential election difficult," claimed Garot, who represents the north-west Mayenne département (county) in the French parliament.
"She's shown that the new-found unity depends on her and that she is capable of imposing this unity on everybody," added Dominique Bertinotti, another member of her close entourage and the mayor of the 4th arrondissement (district) of Paris,
Sophie Bouchet-Petersen is Royal's speechwriter and political adviser. "Ségo2 had to sort out a few things in her head and to let time do its work," she said. "Now everything is clear to her. Her ideas are sharpened and she knows very well where she is headed".
Royal called for unity at the party's annual summer conference at La Rochelle, even declaring she might very well stand backstage in favour of other potential presidential hopefuls like Socialist first secretary, Martine Aubry, or former finance minister and current head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Then she had breakfast with Laurent Fabius, another of the party heavyweights and who had been one of her fiercest critics in the past.
Her flamboyant return to the party mainstream even saw her take on the role of representing the PS in a televised debate on the highly controversial national pension reforms, a major hot, political potatoe, after Aubry declined to participate. Her television appearance was prepared in concert with Socialist Party staff and during the show, party spokesman Benoît Hamon and European MP Harlem Désir could be seen nodding approval in the background.
"That's when Ségolène showed both her strength and what she can bring to the Socialist Party," said Bertinotti. "She has presented a position that is much easier to understand, where before there was silence or a lack of clarity. She has set out a strong policy line that is easy to grasp."
At party headquarters, few deny a ladies' agreement between Aubry and Royal. One of Aubry's advisors, speaking anonymously, said it was not about love rekindled, more a question of a common interest: "It's in our interest to be a part of Ségolène's change in strategy. Meanwhile, she has understood that the more she derides us, the more she plummets in the opinion polls."
"It must be understood that no matter what happens, Martine [Aubry] will be held responsible for the Party's situation," he added. "She isn't like [previous Socialist first secretary, François] Holland3 who took advantage of his position to develop his network. Reconciliation and general unity improve the legitimacy of the apparatus and neutralises the shouting matches, all of which makes Martine's voice better heard."
Those in Royal's entourage recognise that it would be politically suicidal to upset the apple cart now with dissent. Nothing must divide or weaken the party, they said, adding that Aubry had the intelligence to respond favourably to Royal's proposals.
"We have more to lose in leaving Royal by the wayside than in giving her a full role within the party," an advisor to Aubry commented anonymously. "It's very Mitterrand-like, actually," he added, in reference to former Socialist president François Mitterrand's successful methods at keeping the party presidential hopefuls and their supporters in line.
1: Royal presented an idea baptised 'Dispositif gagnant ' whereby the Socialist primaries to elect a presidential candidate would include a debating procedure.
2: Ségolène Royal is popularly nicknamed 'Ségo' in France, both by the public and in the media.
3: François Hollande is Ségolène Royal's former husband. The couple split up during the 2007 presidential campaign while he was still Socialist Party first secretary.