The scale of Ms Royal's win was stunning. With 61% of the votes of card-carrying Socialists, she topped the polls in 101 of the 104 party federations. The three she lost went to Laurent Fabius, a former prime minister. She beat Dominique Strauss-Kahn, her other rival, even in Val d'Oise, the site of his constituency. In four departments she polled over 80% of the vote. With a participation rate of 82% of the 220,000 party members, she now has a clear mandate for next April's election.
What makes the triumph most unusual is the way Ms Royal won it. Traditionally French candidates, left or right, work their way up the hierarchy to control the party machine. Yet Ms Royal, unlike her two rivals, did not even belong to the party's 54-strong national bureau.
At the Socialist congress a year ago, she barely said a worddeliberately, she confided, to distance herself from a line of men in suits.
She made her base the rural region of Poitou-Charentes, where she was elected president in 2004, far from the Parisian elite. And she used her popularity with the electorate as a weapon with which to conquer the party. This was possible thanks to an open democratic primary and the support of 70,000 new party members.
With the Socialists and the centre-right UMP committed to primaries, a new era of French politics has begun, driven by public opinion, nourished by the media, and based on image and personality. The appeal of both Ms Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy, the UMP head and front-running centre-right candidate, relies on style, personality and symbolism as much as policy.
Both politicians offer strong narratives. Ms Royal was educated at the elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA), and was an adviser to Franois Mitterrandbut she fought childhood battles against an authoritarian military father, who considered girls unfit for education. Mr Sarkozy was mayor of Neuilly, the poshest suburb of Paris, but never went to ENAand his father was a first-generation immigrant from Hungary. I had neither connections, nor fortune, he says in his latest book, not to mention a foreign-sounding name.
Second, both embody an anti-elite politics. From her snow-white jackets to her endless talk of internet-driven participatory democracy, Ms Royal comes across as a novelty in a country disillusioned with its rulers: a listener, in touch with ordinary concerns. She said this week that it was up to the French people to decide whether she should stick to the Socialist manifesto, and that all ideas were welcome on her website. It is in this sense that the fact of her being a woman matters: she is, simply, different to others. There is even an echo of the anti-elite message preached by the National Front's Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Mr Sarkozy, a member of the government whose record he often denounces, has more trouble carrying off such brand differentiation. But his plain-talking style, his popularity among the middle classes who feel their pockets squeezed and his frequent spats with President Jacques Chirac have all let him project an image that sets him apart from the elite.
Third, both candidates reject ideological boundaries and present themselves as modernisers. To the discomfort of Socialist-supporting teaching unions, Ms Royal has suggested that teachers should spend more of their already short working week actually in the classroom. Mr Sarkozy, against republican tradition, favours positive discrimination for ethnic minorities. It is sometimes hard to pin down Ms Royal's policies, but this does not mean she has none. As a former colleague from ENA puts it: Everybody thinks she is nice and not clever. But the truth is she is very clever and absolutely not nice.
Ms Royal's and Mr Sarkozy's branding techniques may converge, but the end-product is quite distinct. In a poll published this week by BVA, respondents thought Ms Royal nicer, more modern and more reassuring, but Mr Sarkozy more competent and authoritative.
For now, the momentum is with Ms Royal, who is expected to unveil her campaign team next week. The BVA poll gave her a six-point lead over Mr Sarkozy. Early signs are that her disappointed rivals will rally round. Both Mr Fabius and Mr Strauss-Kahn sent messages of congratulation soon after their defeat. And the party is buoyed by a sudden whiff of potential victory. Indeed, even as the Socialists are starting to pull together, it is the UMP that is looking shaky.
A fresh challenge to Mr Sarkozy was set off by Mr Chirac's wife, Bernadette, who hinted in the Nouvel Observateur last week that her husband might stand again. Michle Alliot-Marie, the defence minister and a firm Chirac ally, also lashed out at some of Mr Sarkozy's pet policiesand was booed for her pains. Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister, chipped in with an implicit attack on the UMP boss by issuing a warning against fishing in the waters of the National Front. It still looks as if Mr Sarkozy will win the party primary in early January hands downpolls give him some three-quarters of party supportbut the chiraquiens are manoeuvring to create space for an alternative.
As it happens, a walkover in the primary might not help Mr Sarkozy. Already he is vulnerable to accusations of control-freakery. A minister from his own party, Franois Goulard, told Le Parisien this week that Sarkozy is incapable of accepting a point of view that differs to his own. And American experience suggests that a bruising primary like Ms Royal's seldom weakens candidates, and may even end up reinforcing them.
The Economist Newspaper Limited 2006