By John LichieldFrench voters seem to want to bet their hope on the social democratic candidate, Ségolène Royal, who, according to the opinion polls, is far ahead in the presidential campaign set for next May. But the so-called Socialist Party that she represents is nothing more than what the Democratic Party represents in American politic, committing to upholding the draconian economic policies of the Jacques Chirac’s conservative government, sugarcoating the vexing immigration problems facing many African immigrants in France, and pledging allegiance to the country’s desire to maintain French colonialism and imperialism over not only its overseas’ Departments in Polynesia and in the Caribbean, but also to sustain its imperial influence over all its former colonies of Sub-Saharan Africa. In this article John Lichfield gives our reader a dazzling glimpse of who Ségolène Royal really is. Picture of the Royal family going to church in a small town in Lorraine in the 1960s shown on French TV has thrilled French voters. The father, Jacques Royal, a retired general, with extreme right-wing opinions and authoritarian and misogynist tendencies, strides ahead. His wife, Hélène, follows meekly behind. The children are obliged to follow, in single file and age order: Marie-Odette, Marie-Nicole, Gérard, Marie-Ségolène, Antoine, Paul, Henry and Sigisbert. General Royal had eight offspring but told a colleague: “I have five children and three daughters.” At home, the female non-children were not allowed to speak at the table. Eventually, the ultra-Catholic General Royal quarreled with his wife and, in effect, abandoned the family. His youngest and cleverest daughter, Marie-Ségolène never spoke to him again. She admitted later, however, that she owed a great deal to her father. At the age of 10, while suffering in silence at the table, Marie-Ségolène decided that she would show “papa” that a determined woman could do anything that a man could do. In May of next year, Ségolène Royal – long since shorn of her Marie prefix – may get her ultimate revenge on papa. The daughter of the man who thought that Charles de Gaulle was a dangerous leftist may become the first ever Présidente de la République – and a Socialist présidente at that. According to the most recent polls, Mme Royal, 53 next month, is now boulevards ahead of all other Socialist candidates in the race to win the “nomination” of the main opposition party for the two round election next April and May. In recent days she has also opened a commanding lead over the probable center-right contender, the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy. French public opinion is volatile. In the August before the last election in 2002, the Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, was also well ahead in the polls. The following April, he failed even to reach the second round run-off between the two top candidates. Ségolène Royal’s still undeclared campaign may yet prove to be the overblown soufflé, which her socialist rivals, and right-wing enemies, have been confidently expecting and then desperately praying for. Don’t count on it. With an odd mixture of plain-speaking and evasion, of conservatism and radicalism, of internet tricksiness and old fashioned barnstorming, of feminism and chic, Mme Royal has defied all the misogynist cat-calling which greeted the declaration that she might run last September. In the past 11 months, she has managed to achieve something that no mainstream, French politician has achieved since her mentor François Mitterrand in the early 1980s. She has generated popular enthusiasm, even fervor, in a country that appeared to have lost its faith in established political parties. At a Socialist festival at a village in Burgundy last weekend, there was a mini-riot as 4,000 people surged forward to “see Ségolène” – not necessarily to hear her, just to see her. Mme Royal has a relatively small role, by her choice, at the Socialist party conference, or summer school, in La Rochelle this weekend. There is no doubt who the delegates really want to see – “Ségo”. Ségolène (which is pronounced “sago”, like the pudding, and “Len”, like Hutton) has become what the French call un people, in other words, a star. Whether she can, as she implies, reform a partially failing France, while preserving the best of France, is another question. Ségolène Royal was born on 22 September 1953 in Dakar, Senegal, during one of her father’s military postings. After he split with her mother, the family was left in considerable penury. That makes the seemingly bourgeois Ségolène one of the few left-wing politicians in France to have known suffering in her own early life. She reached two of the finishing schools of the French elite – Sciences Po and the Ecole nationale d’administration (ENA) – through brilliance and scholarships, not family connections and financial support. At ENA, from 1978, her fellow pupils included Dominique de Villepin, now the center-right Prime Minister, and François Hollande, future first secretary of the Parti Socialiste and her future “husband”. Friends recall that at ENA she was the unimpressive junior partner, the girlfriend of François, a young man destined for great things. The couple has lived together for 25 years. They have four children aged between 14 and 23. They have never married, by Ségolène’s choice. Both she and M. Hollande entered politics in the classic French way, not at the bottom, but at the top, working on the staff of Mitterrand’s Elysée palace. They “parachuted” into provincial constituencies later. In 1992, Mme Royal became the first French cabinet minister to give birth while in office. At that time, she had a rather geeky image, with dreary clothes, unmissable teeth and large glasses. Now the glasses have gone; the clothes are understated but elegant; the teeth have been corrected. At 52, Ségolène Royal is, or has become, a very “handsome” woman. In France, that counts. There was enormous prurient interest and genuine admiration when snatched photographs of Ségolène looking stunning in a turquoise bikini appeared in two French celebrity magazines earlier this month. The French may, or may not, be ready for a woman as leader (the first since a queen regent in the 16th century). France being France, the French – both men and women – would certainly not be ready for a woman leader who was inelegant or physically unattractive. Clearly, looks alone are not enough. Ségolène Royal has brilliantly grasped the essentials of political campaigning in the early 21st century. Like Bill Clinton, like Tony Blair, like Nicolas Sarkozy, up to a point, she has perfected the art of the “I-feel-your-pain”, direct, personal connection with the electorate. Her skilful pre-campaign (almost an American primary campaign) has played a sonata on a series of “values” buttons. Note: This article was first published in The Independent.