Most Powerful Woman in France Has Year to Secure Her Legacy

France's Energy And Environment Minister Segolene Royal Interview

Segolene Royal

Photographer: Christophe Morin/Bloomberg
  • Environment minister aims to make Paris deal ‘irreversible’
  • Hollande languishing in polls a year before for next election

As the clock runs down for Francois Hollande’s presidency in France, the woman who’s been at his side for most of the past 40 years is trying to salvage his reputation.

Segolene Royal has been partner, political rival and now unofficial vice president to Hollande since they met at France’s elite graduate school in the 1970s. With the president’s domestic agenda shredded by opposition from within his party and on the streets of Paris, the 62-year-old environment minister’s international efforts may represent Hollande’s best chance of securing a lasting legacy from five years in power.

Royal has helped position France at the forefront of efforts to tackle climate change, hosting a United Nations summit in December that produced a global deal to rein in temperatures. While 175 nations signed up to a new deal to rein in carbon emissions in New York last month, it won’t come into force until it’s been ratified by 55 percent of the world’s countries covering 55 percent of emissions. The UN says that could happen as soon as 2018. But Royal, who continued her lobbying at a meeting in Bonn on Monday, doesn’t have that long.

QuickTake Climate Change

“I still have to achieve something irreversible,” she said in an interview at her ministry in central Paris last week. “I have to push this country and, as leader of the climate talks, the world, toward a new model of development and make it impossible to backslide.”

Election Maneuvering

This time next year, France will be choosing its next president and polls suggest that Hollande, the father of Royal’s four children, wouldn’t even win enough support to make it into the second round of voting. He’s yet to say whether he’ll run again.

The campaign has already started all the same: Both the traditional right and Marine Le Pen’s National Front are stepping up their attacks on the government, tapping into voters’ frustration with unemployment near a record high and their fears about immigration. Unions have organized two days of strikes for this week to protest Hollande’s efforts to ease the restrictions on hiring and firing.

Potential contenders from within Hollande’s own party are also maneuvering for position. Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, a 38-year-old protege of the president, last month set up his own political movement, En Marche, which aims to attract support for economic reform from voters across the political spectrum.

Royal was ambivalent about her colleagues politicking when they still have a job to do running the country -- she praised Macron’s initiative while pointing to the risk of getting distracted.

“The more you worry about the electoral calendar, the less you are doing your job properly,” she said. “To do your job well is to contribute to the success of your team.”

Hollande himself refused to be drawn on whether he’ll run again in a radio interview Tuesday, but he made it clear that he’s sees no possibility of another candidate from the left winning power next year.

“If I lose, it will be the right or the extreme right in power,” Hollande said on Europe 1 radio.“There is no alternative on the left in the sense that there is a no movement that can get to the second round of the presidential election.”

Forty-Year Partnership

While energy and environmental policy is Royal’s official brief within the administration, her long-standing relationship with the president means that her influence goes much further than that and has seen her dubbed “the vice president” in the French media.

After studying alongside the president at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, Royal’s political star rose faster during the middle phase of their careers after the couple’s four children were born. She was environment minister under President Francois Mitterrand in 1992 and 1993 and ran education and family affairs under Jacques Chirac from 1997 to 2002. Hollande meantime rose through the ranks of the Socialist Party and was leader from 1997 to 2008. 

Their relationship soured after Royal won the Socialist nomination for the 2007 presidential election and they split after she lost to Nicolas Sarkozy in the run-off by six percentage points. She dismisses the prospect of making another run for the top job, despite the precedent of Hillary Clinton, who’s making her second bid for the U.S. presidency at 68.

After Hollande took office in 2012, beating Royal in the primaries, he waited until April 2014 to name her in the government. Now, however, she’s among his closest confidantes.

“After 40 years of political life, I can talk about anything considering my experience -- and above all my methodology,” she said. “Even when people disagree with me, I manage to get them to agree in the end.”

Policy Record

Sometimes that agreement can prove expensive. Since joining the government, Royal canned a satellite-based road-toll system for trucks under pressure from hauliers, forcing the government to pay hundreds of millions of euros in compensation to the operator. She also reversed government plans to raise power tariffs, handing Electricite de France SA shares their biggest decline in five years.

Her bid to force highway operators to cut tolls failed, but she did persuade them to increase investments in exchange for the extension of their concessions. 

Now she’s focused on nailing down that climate deal as a way to help Hollande revive his presidency as it enters, potentially, its final 12 months.

“I have enough perseverance and obstinacy to reach my goals,” she said with a huge smile. “I’m told I’m unsinkable -- that must be at least a bit true.”

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