Into the closed, gray, and overwhelmingly male world of French politics, a bombshell has dropped.
Topping the opinion polls for next year's presidential elections is a chic, 52-year-old mother of four who is bringing a whirlwind of fresh air to the ruling class in Paris and promising a new style of politics to voters tired of their scandal-ridden leaders.
Ségolène Royal, bidding to be the Socialist party's presidential candidate, has stirred up almost as much opposition from fellow Socialist leaders as she has among the governing party. But she has also struck a chord with ordinary people that could resound all the way to the Elysée Palace.
Ms. Royal "is different," says Stéphane Rozès, director of French polling group l'Institut CSA. "She doesn't seem trapped by doctrinal questions and people believe she addresses their problems."
To start with, she listens – a rare trait among French politicians whose lofty distance from everyday affairs is one reason why 76 percent of voters distrust them, according to a recent poll. Royal has made her website a forum for "internauts" to express their opinions on a range of issues, and she is incorporating the ideas she likes best in the online book she is publishing chapter by chapter to set out her platform.
"That's what modern politics is," she said in a recent radio interview. "It is citizens coming to grips with a vision of society, rolling up their sleeves, and trying to fulfill it."
Nor is she afraid to veer away from traditional Socialist policies. Last month, she struck out at the 35-hour workweek, the Socialist party's proudest achievement of the past decade. She also raised howls of criticism from her party colleagues by proposing that delinquent youths be sent to military boot camp, and that their parents be sent to parenting school.
"We need a return to the heavy hand," she declared, to "firmly reestablish a just order and long-lasting security." This is the sort of language used by the tough-talking Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the likely presidential candidate for the center-right UMP party.
But while Royal's rhetoric may make her the only leftist politician capable of beating Sarkozy, it has also earned her a reputation for being authoritarian – a tendency perhaps inherited from her military father. She seems to have turned that trait into an advantage, however, with her views on law and order. The Socialists lost the last elections largely because they were seen as soft on that front, and that issue has exploded onto the political scene again following the riots that shook Paris suburbs last fall.
Royal's foray into unfamiliar territory for a Socialist has paid off. Sixty-nine percent of the electorate supported the boot camp idea.
But this sort of heresy has raised the hackles of traditional party leaders, known as "elephants." (The elegant and slim Royal pointedly refers to herself as a "gazelle.") But it offers the prospect that Royal might modernize the French Socialist party à la Tony Blair and his reform of the British Labour Party.
The "Ségolène effect" may already be taking hold: since March, her party's membership has grown 60 percent and attracted more women than usual.
"She pulverizes the elephants," says Bernard Kouchner, a former Socialist minister of health. "She makes them look out of date, old, obsolete, and sometimes ridiculous."
But though Royal cultivates the appearance of a newcomer, she is in fact a product of the French political system. She was educated at the elite "National School of Administration" (ENA), which trains the country's political cream; she worked as an aide to former president François Mitterrand, her mentor; she served in three cabinet posts, as minister for schools, the family, and the environment; and she is president of the Poitou-Charentes region – a post she won in 2004 by beating the protégé of then-Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.
Accusations from fellow party leaders that Royal is politically incoherent seem to carry little weight with voters. "Her pragmatism is seen as a promise," says Mr. Rozès. "Her talk of authority and standards is reassuring. In the midst of economic and political insecurity, people want moral security."
Nor is anyone holding it against her yet that she has steered clear of expressing opinions on big political, economic, or diplomatic issues, preferring to concentrate on the sort of social questions that touch peoples' lives directly.
"She is clear; she is direct, surprising, and represents another way of doing politics," says Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a former revolutionary firebrand and now a Green Party member of the European parliament. "She is a stroke of luck for the left because for the moment she is the only person capable of beating Sarkozy."
But she will have to fight off Socialist rivals first, including her partner (by civil union) and father of her four children, François Hollande, the party leader, who has presidential ambitions himself.
Before the party's 200,000 members vote in a primary next November, those rivals will likely do all they can to undermine her image as a fresh and distinctive voice by pointing out that she has followed a traditional career path for a politician.
"At the moment she is a romantic figure," says Rozès. "Everybody sees what they want to see in her. The campaign, when she will have to address the big issues, will be her moment of truth."
• Born in Senegal; one of eight children of a conservative French army colonel
• Mother of four and partner (bound by civil union) of French Socialist Party leader François Hollande, who also has his eye on the presidency
• Graduated with honors from France's elite school of public administration, L'École Nationale d'Administration
• Served as Minister of the Environment (1992-1997); Minister for Education (1997-2000); Minister of Employment (2000-2002)
• Author of four books, including "Le ras-le-bol des bébés zappeurs" (roughly translated as "The Dissatisfaction of the Channel-surfing Generation")
Sources: French Embassy; The Guardian, wikipedia