Segolene RoyalAs you may or may not know, France is holding presidential elections this year. The two frontrunners are Nicolas Sarkozy (Chirac’s heir, from the right-wing UMP party) and Ségolène Royal, a rising star in the Socialist Party who surprised everyone by elbowing ahead of several more senior party members in the polls. She’s held a number of positions in French government, among the minister of the environment back in 1992.

I know very little about French politics, and as this post gets longer the chances of me saying something stupid approach 100%, so I’ll just make one observation. I was reading an article in Atlantic Monthly about Royal this morning, and I was struck by the parallels to Barack Obama.

As with Obama, Royal’s personal history serves as a kind of parable for how the French like to see themselves: she escaped a reactionary, heavy-handed father in the country to flee to the city and become a stylish, educated cosmopolitan. Now she lives with her partner as an unapologetically unmarried mother of four.

As with Obama, Royal has been borne aloft less by a set of policies or plans than by a cult of personality. She promises a new kind of politics, a break from the sterile, disconnected pomposity of the past. She promises a renewal, through which all French citizens will once again be drawn in as active participants in creating the country’s future.

As with Obama, she is criticized as being an inexperienced empty vessel onto which everyone is projecting their own hopes and expectations.

The central question of both campaigns is whether the enormous hopes invested in the candidate can translate to real change or whether they will end in inevitable disappointment.