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French power couple reunites _ at Cabinet table

April 4, 2014

PARIS (AP) — Is this a Cabinet meeting, or a family reunion? The new French government’s first meeting includes a man and woman who had four children together, split up in the public eye and are now back together in the political spotlight.

Politically speaking, it’s not as awkward as it sounds.

President Francois Hollande shook up the government this week after his Socialist Party suffered an electoral defeat in nationwide municipal elections. Among two new faces in the Cabinet is Segolene Royal, a longtime politician and the mother of Hollande’s children, as environment and energy minister. The two split up in 2007.

The new team is held its first meeting Friday in the Elysee Palace, with Royal and Hollande sitting almost directly across from each other.

People close to the pair say they’ll keep things professional at the Cabinet table.

Hollande’s and Royal’s lives and careers have been interlinked since they met in the late 1970s at the prestigious finishing school for France’s political elite, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration.

They entered parliament together in 1988, elected in different constituencies. They entered the president’s palace for the first time together a few years later as staffers to President Francois Mitterrand.

As environment minister in 1992, Royal did something unprecedented for a French politician: she gave birth while in government, to her fourth child. And then she shocked people even more by inviting a TV camera into the maternity ward.

Royal said she did so “to help the cause of women, at a time when women are taking on more significant responsibilities.” Hollande makes a guest appearance in the TV segment, joking about his big family.

Twice, Hollande and Royal competed to become the Socialists’ presidential candidate.

She landed the spot the first time, in 2007 — but lost the presidential race to conservative Nicolas Sarkozy. Hollande then won the party nomination and the presidency in 2012.

Royal’s appearance at the Cabinet meeting would have been even more closely watched — or perhaps simply unthinkable — a couple of months ago, when Hollande was still living with first lady Valerie Trierweiler. The two recently broke up amid reports that he is having an affair with an actress.

Royal says she’ll work with the president in the most “natural and institutional” way possible. Entering and leaving Friday’s meeting, the media-savvy minister and political survivor wore a broad smile.

Hollande and Royal have been talking more often in recent months, but only about political issues, according to two people close to Royal, former longtime lawmaker Jean-Louis Bianco and current parliament deputy Sebastien Denaja.

“Their relationship is completely calm, I think this will not pose any problem to work together. I think that things will go very naturally, without one bothering the other,” Bianco, who ran Royal’s 2007 presidential campaign, told The Associated Press.

Royal’s appointment has prompted criticism from those who fear she will have undue influence thanks to her special relationship with the head of state, and who suspect she used that relationship to get the job. Her allies say that’s unfair.

Royal’s appearance in government may not do much to help Hollande’s popularity — she hasn’t won an election in seven years and is divisive to many French. But his new prime minister, Manuel Valls, is popular and hard-driving, and many are pinning hopes on him to turn around the economy.

Hollande and Royal will now meet once a week at the Cabinet table. They’ll have one-on-one meetings, too, about car emissions or nuclear power or any of Royal’s other new responsibilities.

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