Sky-high expectations

People are looking to him to rewrite the image of America, both at home and abroad - all this and mu

This was not the first American election I watched on foreign soil. Last time around (also when I was in London, as a matter of fact), Senator John Kerry sank beneath the undertow of a swift boat smear campaign and his own weighty rhetoric as America re-elected George W Bush by a slim margin.

So I had a mild case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as I watched the results come in last night, wary to the last. It took McCain’s gracious and humble concession speech for the reality to sink in that America had just elected Barack Hussein Obama as the next president.

Obama carries on his shoulders a heavy burden and sky-high expectations. He inherits a global financial crisis, two faltering wars, global climate change, a trillion dollar national debt, a possible recession and America’s tarnished international reputation.

Republican pundits snidely remarked that he walked on water and parted the Red Sea, but with the situation as it stands in America and around the world, President-elect Obama may indeed have to perform such feats.

In his acceptance speech, delivered to an expectant crowd of thousands, he was careful to mention the possible setbacks and sacrifices ahead, preparing the nation for the hard road ahead.

His election, no doubt, represents the making of history and the breaking of barriers, but the true test for president-elect Obama will come when he takes office in January, replacing a deeply unpopular and unsuccessful president. People are looking to him to rewrite the image of America, both at home and abroad, after the devastation of Katrina, after the frustration of Iraq and Afghanistan, after the humiliation of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. People are looking to him to epitomise the ephemeral American Dream, where a global citizen with a Kenyan father, brought up in Kansas and Indonesia, educated in Harvard and refined on Chicago’s streets is able to step into the spotlight on the Washington D.C. stage.

Ironically, if Senator John McCain had run this campaign like the candidate he was in 2000, he might have had a much greater chance at defeating Obama. That bipartisan, dignified and “straight talking” McCain made a brief appearance when he conceded the election to Obama last night, silencing a booing crowd. The last desperate months of the Republican campaign saw some ugly crowds shouting everything from “socialist” to “terrorist,” but pragmatism prevailed over partisan politics as scores of voters chose Obama’s message of change and bipartisanship rather than the Republican party’s politics of fear.

President-elect Obama humbly acknowledged his triumph, saying, “This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were.” He indirectly addressed those booing in the McCain crowd, saying, “And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too.”

Having run a successful campaign on the effervescent messages of hope and change, Obama will require people to maintain those emotions through his tenure in office. Americans will need to store away the hope left over after his victory and bring it out to savour when the already difficult road gets tougher, when the current dream melts away to the reality of next year. President-elect Obama has charisma, intellect and an undisputable eloquence, but only next year will show whether his ideals and eloquence translate to decisive action in the highest office.

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A loyalist rebranded: will Ségolène Royal run again to be the French President?

The French press is speculating about Ségolène Royal replacing François Hollande as the Socialist candidate.

“I will lead you to other victories!” Ségolène Royal told the crowds gathered in front of the French Socialist party’s headquarters on 6 May 2007.

Many at the time mocked her for making such an odd statement, just after losing to Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential election. But nearly ten years on, she might just be the candidate the French left needs to win the upcoming presidential election.

There is growing speculation that the current President François Hollande – who was Royal’s partner for 30 years and the father of her four children – will not be in a position to run again. His approval ratings are so low that a defeat in next May’s election is almost inevitable. His own party is starting to turn against him and he can now only count on a handful of faithful supporters.

Royal is among them. In the past, she probably would have jumped at the opportunity to stand for election again, but she has learned from her mistakes. The 63-year-old has very cleverly rebranded herself as a wise, hard-working leader, while retaining the popular touch and strong-willed character which led to her previous successes.

Royal has an impressive political CV. She became an MP in 1988 and was on several occasions appointed to ministerial positions in the 1990s. In 2004, she was elected President of the Poitou-Charentes region in western France. In 2006, Royal won the Socialist party’s primary by a landslide ahead of the presidential election.

She went on to fight a tough campaign against Sarkozy, with little support from high-ranking members of her party. She ended up losing but was the first woman to ever go through to the second round of a French presidential election.

After that, it all went downhill. She split up with Hollande and lost the election to be party leader in 2008. She was humiliated by only getting 6.95 per cent of the votes in the 2011 Socialist presidential primary. She hit an all-time low when in 2012 she stood as the Socialist party’s official candidate to become MP for La Rochelle on the French west coast and lost to Olivier Falorni, a local candidate and Socialist party “dissident”. Royal then took a step back, away from the Parisian hustle and bustle. She continued to serve as the Poitou-Charentes regional President but kept largely out of the media eye.

Royal was very much the people’s candidate back in 2007. She drew her legitimacy from the primary result, which confirmed her huge popularity in opinion polls. She innovated by holding meetings where she would spend hours listening to people to build a collaborative manifesto: it was what she called participatory democracy. She shocked historical party figures by having La Marseillaise sung at campaign rallies and Tricolores flying; a tradition up until then reserved for right-wing rallies. She thought she would win the presidency because the people wanted her to, and did not take enough notice of those within her own party plotting her defeat.

Since then, Royal has cleverly rebranded herself – unlike Sarkozy, who has so far failed to convince the French he has changed.

When two years ago she was appointed environment minister, one of the highest-ranking cabinet positions, she kept her head down and worked hard to get an important bill on “energy transition” through Parliament. She can also be credited with the recent success of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Above all, she has been impeccably loyal to the President.

Royal has reinforced her political aura, by appearing at Hollande’s side for state occasions, to the extent that French press have even labelled her “the Vice-President”. This has given her a licence to openly contradict the Prime Minister Manuel Valls on various environmental issues, always cleverly placing herself on virtue’s side. In doing so, not only has she gained excellent approval ratings but she has pleased the Green party, a traditional ally for the Socialists that has recently turned its back on Hollande.

The hard work seems to have paid off. Last Sunday, Le Journal du Dimanche’s front-page story was on Royal and the hypothesis that she might stand if Hollande does not. She has dismissed the speculations, saying she found them amusing.

Whatever she is really thinking or planning, she has learned from past errors and knows that the French do not want leaders who appear to be primarily concerned with their own political fate. She warned last Sunday that, “for now, François Hollande is the candidate”. For now.

Philip Kyle is a French and English freelance journalist.