PARIS (Reuters) - Segolene Royal has returned politically to the side of her former partner, French President Francois Hollande, joining his Socialist government on Wednesday seven years after her own failed run at the presidency.
For Royal, who had four children with Hollande, her appointment to the sensitive energy and environment portfolios in a cabinet shakeup marks a dramatic political comeback.
But for Hollande, smarting from heavy losses in local elections and a jobless rate stuck above 10 percent two years into his term, it is a gamble.
Royal, who was first an environment minister 22 years ago, is an experienced operator who argues that economic imperatives should take second place to the interests of ordinary people.
As such, she could lend a less technocratic image to the team of Hollande, from whom she announced her personal split shortly after the 2007 presidential campaign.
But the 60-year-old returns with a reputation as a poor team-player and no one knows how she will work as a minister with the man with whom she shared her life for a quarter of a century.
Hollande left Royal for Valerie Trierweiler and a comeback was always unlikely as long as the journalist was installed as First Lady in the Elysee presidential palace. In the first serious gaffe of Hollande’s term, Trierweiler expressed support in a Twitter message for a dissident left-winger who defeated Royal in a 2012 parliamentary election.
However, the couple also split after magazine allegations in January this year that Hollande was having an affair with actress Julie Gayet.
With private affairs looming large in Hollande’s presidency despite his campaign pledge to be “normal”, Royal is likely to face intense media scrutiny over her personal rapport with the president.
“If she has a problem, she can always pick up the phone and call the Elysee rather than the prime minister,” a friend of the former couple who asked to remain anonymous told Reuters.
Royal, who was minister for the environment in 1992-93 and schools in 1997-2002, enhanced her reputation as a political operator when she outmanoeuvred several Socialist grandees to become the party’s candidate for president in the 2007 race that she lost to Nicolas Sarkozy.
Her economic plans then included a hefty increase in the minimum wage and placed her firmly on the left. But she also shocked left-wingers by stressing patriotism and order, urging people to hang the national flag from their balcony on public holidays and proposing to send young offenders to military-style boot camps.
After losing to Sarkozy, she suffered one defeat after another, retreating to local politics in the western Poitou-Charentes. She narrowly lost to Martine Aubry in a bitterly disputed internal election to succeed Hollande as Socialist Party leader in 2008.
Hollande’s presidential election victory in 2012 followed a Socialist Party primary in which Royal wept on learning she had been knocked out of the contest with a dismal score.
Her parliamentary election defeat that year appeared to mark a full stop in a political career that began when she and Hollande were hired to work for the late Socialist President Francois Mitterrand.
Born in Senegal in 1953, Royal and her seven siblings grew up in rural eastern France under an army colonel father, against whose will she studied politics and met Hollande while studying at the elite ENA civil service academy.
Reporting by Brian Love; Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Paul Taylor and David Stamp