PARIS — As the French center left stares into a bleak future, a figure from its past is offering herself as a savior.
Ségolène Royal, the 2007 Socialist Party nominee for president, is back on the political scene, touting her environmental credentials and considering putting together a multi-party list for the European Parliament election in May.
Such a move could offer at least a measure of salvation for the center left, which was reduced to a rump by French President Emmanuel Macron and his centrist movement in national elections last year. Recent polls show the once-mighty Socialists floundering with a mere 7 percent of voting intentions for the European ballot.
With her Socialist roots and high profile on green issues, Royal may be able to appeal to a range of left-of-center voters who see Macron as too right-wing but are not comfortable with Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far-left France Unbowed movement. However, the 65-year-old will have to overcome skepticism among voters who consider her yesterday’s woman and attacks from opponents who question her commitment to environmental causes.
“She is a major figure of the left and of the ecology movement, and as a result she can incarnate this union” — Socialist leader Olivier Faure
In a series of recent media appearances, Royal has flirted with the idea of leading a list that would go beyond her former party, which she quit last year.
Asked on French TV last week whether she is running, Royal said: “When I see all the backward steps in [environmental policy,] it is true that I am more and more looking into it.”
Royal said she would make a final decision by January.
Current Socialist leader Olivier Faure signaled openness to the idea, saying “she is a major figure of the left and of the ecology movement, and as a result she can incarnate this union.”
Royal has stepped up public appearances after publishing a memoir in late October, in which she riffed on sexism in the political arena. The book won her considerable public sympathy, particularly as she detailed her battles to break into the male-dominated world of top-tier French politics.
An active presence in French politics since the 1980s, Royal has surged in polls this month. She ranked fourth and sixth among top French politicians in two popularity surveys, placing significantly higher than Emmanuel Macron.
Importantly for the coalition she is contemplating, she was the most popular figure among left-leaning voters, with 54 percent of those surveyed saying they trust her. She overtook Mélenchon as the most trusted figure in that segment, doubtless profiting from the France Unbowed leader’s epic meltdown during a campaign finance investigation.
“There still exists a social democrat space to the left of Emmanuel Macron, which represents around 15 percent of the electoral body. These voters are left-leaning, but do not see themselves with either Macron or Mélenchon,” Jérôme Fourquet, director of polling research at IFOP, told Le Monde.
While Royal’s entourage makes it sound like she is only considering an EU run due to popular demand, her recent attacks on Macron’s policies feel more calculated, especially on a subject she knows well and on which the president is seen to be struggling.
“There has not been a week where there has not been a step back on ecology,” she said last month on RTL radio. “One understands better why Hulot quit,” she added, a reference to the surprise resignation of popular Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot.
Royal oversaw COP21 climate negotiations in 2015 as environment minister for then-President François Hollande (her former partner). Although diminished in her current role as French ambassador to the Arctic and Antarctic, which is unpaid, she has continued to voice ecological concerns.
And her long-term opposition to herbicides, such as the controversial weedkiller glyphosate, and pollutants has won praise from ecological groups.
“We very much appreciate her positions on glyphosate and endocrine disruptors,” said François Veillerette, director of Générations Futures, an environmental NGO. “On these subjects, she has been unrelenting,” He said other specialist NGOs rate her track record as “very good.”
“It was Ségolène Royal who decided to bury the tax on heavy trucks” — Barbara Pompili, En Marche MP
A big political comeback for Royal would add pressure on Macron to accelerate France’s phasing out of glyphosate. The French president initially backed a three-year phase-out, but under pressure from farmers, MPs have since repeatedly voted against a hard deadline.
Officials from Macron’s La République En Marche party have expressed concern that green issues represent a weak flank that could cost them votes. They have hit back at Royal, questioning her record on the environment.
“It was Ségolène Royal who decided to bury the tax on heavy trucks,” said En Marche MP Barbara Pompili, a former Green, to a group of parliamentary journalists earlier this month.
Once a divisive figure in her own camp, Royal has picked up at least one notable backer. Martine Aubry, the Socialist mayor of Lille and Royal’s one-time party nemesis, has backed her in private, according to Libération.
Although the European ballot comes first, Royal may have her eyes on an even larger prize. During a TV interview on Sunday, she paused when asked if she would make a run for president in 2022.
“I haven’t asked myself the question,” she answered, saying her focus is on protecting the planet.
When pressed on whether such a task could take her to the Elysée presidential palace, she would not rule it out. “Perhaps, perhaps,” she said.