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Transatlantic Lessons for Hillary


The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus.

Last spring, Socialist Segolene Royal failed in her quest to become France's first female president - just as Hillary Clinton was launching a similar bid in the United States. While Royal was always eager to draw parallels with her American counterpart, Hillary did her best to dismiss any comparisons, going as far as refusing to meet with the Frenchwoman.

Yet, the Democratic candidate should make sure to look a bit more closely at Royal's defeat at the hands of right-wing Nicolas Sarkozy, for she might glean three valuable lessons about how to (not) run a presidential campaign.


1. The limits of using gender as a symbol for change

Segolene Royal took the Socialist Party by storm in 2006. She suddenly became a media phenomenon, as her popularity soared and she waltzed her way to the top of polls. Much of this came from her image as a figure outside of traditional politics. She was already a minister some twenty years ago during the Mitterrand presidency, but she had never been considered part of the party's establishment and stayed out of internal leadership fights.

In her nomination fight against former prime ministers and cabinet members, Royal took on leading figures of the French Socialist Party, a group that has long been nicknamed "the elephants." Her gender distinguished her from the pack and defined her as a "modern" fresh figure, different from the usual aging male politician. She played on this by repeatedly accusing her opponents of misogyny. She claimed that one of her opponents had asked, "Who will watch over the children?" and repeatedly asserted that she would not be attacked with as much vehemence if she were male.

This strategy worked in the first phase of her campaign, but hit a roadblock during the general election, in which the effectiveness of Royal's image as a modern figure suddenly declined. Nicolas Sarkozy managed to persuade French voters that he was the "candidate of the rupture" who would break away from the Jacques Chirac years, even though he had served in Chirac's government for most of his second term. Her appeal to freshness and diversity proved insufficient when confronted with Sarkozy's new fast-paced style of campaigning - taken straight out of American electoral politics. The automatic boost that her gender provided her in the primaries did not do the trick at the end.

Hillary Clinton is certainly not outside the establishment. In fact, many consider her to be the establishment. But the 2008 primary race has been defined by a quest for change. Who can best turn the page? Obama's central message is that he is best equipped to profoundly transform American politics with his "politics of hope." To counter this, Clinton has to find a way to portray herself as an effective agent of change as well. She cannot do this merely by appealing to the 1990s. Nor can she just claim that she is Democrat, and thus not George Bush, for Edwards is eager to connect her to Washington's corrupt politico-corporate system.

Thus comes in the subtle subtext of Clinton's gender. She would be the first female President, and while she does not emphasize that as much as Royal did last year, her campaign is making the most of it. Just look at how much they are specifically courting female voters (Clinton pollster Mark Penn recently suggested that a significant portion of GOP women could defect to vote for Hillary). Clinton is not running as the best agent of change in this election, but she wants to appear to bring enough to pass the test - and it seems to be working for now. In a recent Los Angeles Times article, the president of the polling firm American Research Group, Dick Bennett, assessed the strength of Clinton's change argument: "When [Obama] talks about representing change, women who are considering Hillary look at him and say, If this is about change, she represents greater change than you do, simply by being a woman."

Yet, Royal's example should show Hillary that her gender cannot by itself make her appear as a modern figure. She is certainly aware of that, given that she stays away from too many references to running as a woman. But she should then work on supplying voters with more reasons to think she is an agent of change.

2. The dangers of having a famous partner

In what is perhaps the most surprising parallel between the two women, Royal's couple is as politically eminent as are the Clintons. Royal's partner Francois Hollande (the two never got married) has been the leader of the Socialist Party since 1997. He entertained presidential hopes of his own, though his star waned after he failed to hold the party together during the failed 2005 referendum on the European Union Constitution. Whatever hope he had left of becoming his party's nominee died away when Royal became the most popular Socialist figure.

This ushered in a truly vaudeville-esque situation, as it soon became apparent that Hollande and Royal's thirty-year relationship was not doing so well. The couple's domestic troubles started spilling over into the public arena, with tense exchanges on issues like taxation; Hollande blamed Royal for taking positions counter to the party's platform, and Royal's entourage accused him of hindering her campaign. This contributed to confusing the message of the Socialist campaign, as the candidate and the party so often seemed at odds with one another. Hollande and Royal announced they were splitting up a month after Royal's defeat.

Bill Clinton, on the other hand, appears committed to ensuring his wife's victory, and we will likely never see any back and forth between the tightly shipped Clintons. But Hillary has to weight the benefits her husband brings her with the risks of making her campaign depend too much on him. He tends to overshadow her, and Hillary has to make sure she is running as her own woman. Obama and Edwards are quick to point out that Clinton has little else to run on than the 1990s.

The media is also eager to find a faultline in the Clinton couple. At the Dartmouth debate last April, Tim Russert set up a trap for Hillary by asking her to comment on a quote implying that torture might be acceptable in some cases. After Clinton put the question away by strongly disagreeing with the speaker, Russert revealed with evident triumph that he had quoted "William... Jefferson... Clinton." Hillary quickly responded, "Well he's not standing here right now."

Hillary is certainly aware of the challenges of having a famous husband; and in case she forgets, Royal's troubles in France should serve as a useful reminder that she should not link Bill too closely to her campaign however involved he is in the backrooms.

3. The bias against a female candidate's foreign policy strength

Nicolas Sarkozy certainly did not possess more foreign policy experience than Ségolène Royal. That Royal was repeatedly faulted for her weakness on national security and diplomatic issues thus shows the extent of the bias a female candidate has to overcome to get to the presidency. Voters seem to perceive a woman as too weak when it comes to dealing with international crises or project authority.

Royal led Sarkozy in most polls until January 2007 when she had to go through a prolonged media drubbing. Most of the controversies that emerged were linked to foreign policy. Royal was, for example, unable to say how many submarines the French military has. The leaders of the Right immediately charged that Royal was not ready to lead the country. But when the same radio-host asked the same question to Sarkozy a few weeks later, the Right's champion also provided a wrong answer - though barely anyone noticed. Royal had already lost much of her credibility in that time and was unable to recover in time for the May runoff.

Of the three lessons of Royal's defeat, this is the one Hillary seems to have learned the best. She maybe even incorporated it too well, given how hawkish she often appears when discussing the Iraq war and sanctions against Iran. It is also the least urgent for Clinton to address, given that any accusation of weakness on national security will likely only come in the general election.


If she becomes her party's nominee, Hillary Clinton might have to face Rudy Giuliani in the general election, a development that would further cement the parallel between the French and American elections. The ever-agitated and authoritarian Giuliani is in many ways closer to Sarkozy than Clinton is to Royal. Democrats can only hope that the parallels stop her, and that Hillary's fate is happier than Segolene's.