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Le phénomène Ségolène

by Julia Kristeva

No doubts about my vote
FROM a French point of view, there is only one idea that obsesses the world these days: is the Republic about to get her first female President? There is no avoiding it: the topic recurs, invading our breakfasts, lunches and dinners; no business meeting, still less any amorous encounter, is free from it: "What do you think of Ségolène Royal as President?". I had prepared a short riposte whose ambiguity was intended to disarm intrusive questioners: "There's no one better". But this was to underestimate the force of the shock, for my companion would inevitably return to the attack: "So you're also seduced by that woman's manners?". At this point I resist no longer, I let myself go. Seduced by Ségolène Royal? No, it's something else: she's inevitable, at this point in history, and so tuned in to public opinion. But why?

First, because she demonstrates that Woman does not exist, only women. Ségo represents just one version of femininity, perhaps the most impressive yet produced by French Catholicism: physical beauty and a thirst for new challenges are combined in her with the desire to govern – the finishing touch to her emotional command. The lover's passions are locked away or even absent here, and the mysteries of maternal feeling have likewise vanished behind the brevity of a pragmatic language which seems to come from outside, bouncing back with her smile and regally sidestepping the questions within. Is she a loose cannon? That's a mistake: she is strict, a watcher and herself closely watched. The end of all that's sexy? Well, what a relief!

In a world where we look in vain for a man who is neither depressed nor manic, this irresistible, sober, elegant will for power does more than merely reassure. For Royal responds directly to the national memory, sidelined since the French Revolution by the system of ideologies and party politics that we call ‘representative’ democracy: this is the second major asset of the Socialist candidate. Dressed up in traditional Poitevin costume or kitted out by a fashionable designer, handling regionalism or battered women, she inspires...the whole nation. Royal does not seem to be inhibited by the crimes committed in her name. She is rehabilitating this memory – and without a single false step – towards an unobtrusive nationalism, via the soft politics of local goat's cheese. The message is subliminal, and it works: this is the revenge of all the women who have been kept out of the driving-seat of France and out of her partisan politics, from the Salic Law (which barred transmission of the French throne through the female line) to the chauvinism of the Jacobins. It is a homage to those legendary or unknown women who have made their mark in life and war, in French thought and letters, and who have cleared the way for her (starting with Joan of Arc, let us put ourselves out!). A hope of rebirth, in fact, for a people whose little remaining pride—humiliated in how many wars now?— the effects of globalisation look set to diminish even further.

Is she perhaps too French? Make no mistake, the girl-scout from the Vosges mountains, grown up into a republican, leftist, secular énarque(one of the ‘grandes écoles’ in which students are groomed for a life in politics), has nothing old-fashioned about her; she is in tune with the political heart of the spectacle—which is her third great asset. Possibly Ségo’s most significant quality, this is the one that her male colleagues – like her female contemporaries who, heralded by the first feminists, were bruited as potential présidentes of France – and indeed all pretenders to the throne, though better educated and deeper thinkers than Ségo, have not yet mastered.

My questioners follow my words, half-convinced and half-afraid. All of this is indeed fascinating, if the Socialist candidate gets only this far, but it is also frightening; Ségo will have to rally new skills and energy, and without a moment’s delay propose precise, concrete, verifiable and renewable measures so that her magic isn’t extinguished by a narrow concentration on French family issues. Only a woman can evoke such excitement and such uncertainties. She must not be alone. And yes, you’re right, this is my best reason to vote for her, without a doubt.

A detour via Hannah Arendt
As luck would have it, at just the moment when the likelihood of France having her first female president is exercising public opinion, I am awarded the Hannah Arendt International Prize for Political Thought. Nothing to do with Ségolène, surely? Not so fast!

Arendt, the philosopher and scholar of politics who described herself so modestly as a “political journalist”, is now recognised around the world as Heidegger’s lover and the inventor of the concept of ‘totalitarianism’: even though they were in fierce opposition to each other, proposed this German Jewess, Nazism and Stalinism were both totalitarian since they stood for “the insignificance of human life”. Less well known is that for Arendt, who survived these horrors and their consequences thanks to what she called the “felicity of thought”, the “centre of politics” lies in the opportunity for each individual person to appear within the plurality of the world. The word “appear” is fundamental here, as is the expression “plurality of the world”: they are at the heart of the phenomenon which is currently monopolising opinion in France and beyond.

The empty language and manipulations entailed by our ‘society of spectacle’ have provoked an automatic reflex: the virtuous these days demonise the ‘democracy of opinion’, while moralisers distrust everything that is in favour with ‘the public’. Both sides forget what Arendt herself never underestimated: that Greek heroism, which was political from the start, resides in the capacity to “not be frightened of appearing” to others. Now, at the start of the third millennium, modern methods of communication offer previously unimagined opportunities for this revelation. The German term Öfftenlichkeit expresses it nicely: at once ‘publicity’ and ‘openness’ of the unthought, forgotten and repressed, of what is most interior and intimate. The world is political when it offers itself to its people so as to make them active and knowable, and opinion as Arendt sees it is the first sign of this incipient social world, of this publicity—the dawn of politics.

Might this ‘opinion’ mark a return of the ‘Greek miracle’, in which the citizen’s courage lies in appearing as part of the world’s plurality, accessible at last thanks to new means of communication? And what if France were to become the experimental incubator of this brand-new democracy of opinion that we’re so desperately seeking everywhere, in the ruins of bipartisan politics? From television to the internet, via blogs, each person wants and has to be noticed: I am listening to you, I like you, you like me. I appeal to veiled women no less than to you, men hardened in your certainties; come forward in all simplicity, our talk will begin on new foundations. The new world which is establishing itself with new techniques and risks demands a new politics. No one knows exactly what this will be – I no more than you – but let’s be open to it, play the game: we shall see.

And yet how many women succeed in appearing and gaining recognition in the political space, as utopically sketched out by Arendt? What religious logic is compatible with this singular revelation of uniqueness, in the political arena? And which, instead, work in opposition to that revelation and impede it?

Arendt did not hesitate to name European secularisation as among the events which have led to new forms of anti-Semitism and totalitarianism. But when adherents of the ‘transcendentalist’ school of history at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, try to make her say that totalitarianism is more the product of modern atheism than of a socio-historical process, she does not merely maintain that the totalitarian phenomenon is unique and that no earlier, Medieval or 18th-century governments or states may be qualified as ‘totalitarian’, but links the political use of ‘holiness’ back to the pernicious nihilism which she opposes: “Those who conclude from the terrible events of our times that we must go back to religion, for political reasons, seem to me to show themselves as lacking in belief in God as are their opponents” (Essays in Understanding).

Neither transcendentalism nor secularism: could this plural political world, in which I appear through a plurality of relations, yet save us from ruin? This seems to be the agonising, insoluble, unavoidable Arendtian question—which brings me back to another, peculiarly French situation, one which is incomprehensible outside the Republic and which the Ségolène phenomenon only makes more urgent: the question of women and the veil.

Veiled women; women who choose death by fire
When French public space, beginning with the school environment, requires that girls and women appear without a veil, it is offering them nothing less than this political world of revelation: be ‘those who’ and not ‘those which’; act as subjects and not as objects of your ancestries or traditions; don’t stifle your bodies and tastes; you do not belong, you are not ‘of’, you are! Let your biographies be written with thoughts and decisions that are boundless and unique, and yet may still be shared.

The Ségolène phenomenon appeals to our need to believe, and far from clashing with the enthusiasm of faith, makes it a major asset of her campaign. But the potential President of the secular Republic seizes on this too, to incorporate it into the search for a new political contract with opinion, in which the place of women will be decisive. For doesn’t the adage go that it is women who make opinion, while men dictate the laws?

This opening-up of old political codes requires an extraordinary capacity for rebirth, which the writer Colette saw as typically feminine: “It has never been beyond me to be reborn” (The Break of Day, 1928). It was this attitude that Arendt adopted when she paraphrased de Tocqueville, claiming that “a new world demands a new politics”, and that, without the slightest superficiality, it must take apart the entire tradition in order to better rebuild it. Is this to say, for our political thinker, that politics is taking the place of religion? Will Arendtian politics be the first politics of incarnation? (Arendt recalls that Jesus evokes the difference between the sexes – “God created them male and female” (Genesis, 1-27) – and so at once also human diversity as a condition of action; while Saint Paul, whose law is linked to salvation, emphasises the idea that woman was created “out of man” and “for man”. A political Jesus already? More political than Paul, at any rate).

Two possibilities now seem open to us, on reading Arendt: either galloping depoliticisation will precipitate the return of religion, and shrink the political space to the point of impotence, for a long, indeterminable period of time; or the programming that is part of the “superfluous process of human life”, and the exploitation of the death impulse by fundamentalists, will lead to a vital burst of inter-est, and a re-initiation of creative subjectivity.

Logically, this second possibility requires not a return to, but a re-founding of Greco-Judeo-Christian authority, which offers the desire for a “common world”, constituted by a plurality of ‘who’s’, and which Arendt calls “the centre of the political”. It is our duty to reinterpret this gift, for only a ‘brand-new politics’, seen in this light, may yet hold off disaster.

For the time being:
  noting that the "superfluity of human life" continues to be a radical evil that is declared, whether admitted, practiced or tolerated;
  that the right of each person to appear in the plurality of political relations is, even today, as yet unrecognised in many places on our globalised planet;
  that it is mostly women who fall victim to this destruction of the political space and this negation of the human person, even to the extent of their right to live;
  and remembering that, reticent about feminism and having devoted only one short text to the subject (On the Emancipation of Women, 1933), in which she railed against economic discrimination, Hannah Arendt refused to see women as simple proletarians and suggested we analyse the family rather than isolated individuals;
  I consider that a re-founding of the political world, as suggested by Arendt's writings, invites us to put the issue of the singular fate of a man and a woman, without hierarchy whatsoever, at the heart of the democracy of opinion.

In light of this, I am offering the Hannah Arendt Prize to the NGO Humani-Terra (, based in Marseille, to help it in its exemplary work at the hospital of Herat in Afghanistan, treating Afghan women who have found no other way to protest the injustices and violations to which they are subject than to immolate themselves by fire. The prize should go towards medical and psychological treatments as well as the continued care for the disabled, and also towards the socio-political education of the victims, their families and communities. In the wish that this collaboration will be longlived, I hope that the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought may draw attention to the fate of these women, in order to galvanise international political sympathy with them, as well as with other victims of policies, ideologies, beliefs or customs which entail or tolerate "the superfluity of human life".

Have I strayed from the ‘Ségolène phenomenon’? Not really. If a woman were to become president of France, it is possible that, all over the world, women will appear, with the will and the courage not to sacrifice themselves in fire but more than ever to burn with the fire of culture… which is inevitably political, in the Arendtian sense of the word.

Translated by Sophie Lewis.

Julia Kristeva is a prominent psychoanalyst and philosopher, and professor of linguistics at the University of Paris VII.

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