(L-R) French Socialist party members Arnaud Montebourg, Segolene Royal and Najat Vallaud-Belkacem and France's newly-elected President Francois Hollande celebrate on stage with during a victory rally at Place de la Bastille in Paris early May 7, 2012.
France's newly elected President Francois Hollande, right -- with fellow French Socialist party members Arnaud Montebourg, left, Segolene Royal, second from left, and Najat Vallaud-Belkacem -- celebrate on stage during a victory rally at the Place de la Bastille in Paris on May 7. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Politics make strange bedfellows indeed -- especially in France.

Francois Hollande, the newly elected Socialist president of the Fifth Republic, has formed his cabinet and is planning to scale back the austerity programs imposed by his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, of the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, party.

What is particularly interesting is that a woman named Segolene Royal could very well become the next president of the National Assembly -- the lower house of France's parliament -- thereby making her one of the most prominent female politicians in the country.

Royal, 58, just happens to be Hollande's former lover of 30 years and the mother of his four children. Around the time that Royal herself lost the 2007 presidential election to Sarkozy, she and Hollande broke up in an acrimonious and public divorce, although they were not formally married. Hollande, it was revealed, had been having a relationship with journalist Valerie Trierweiler, who is 11 years younger than Royal and now is France's first lady, although Trierweiler and Hollande are also not formally married.

Hollande will not have the power to appoint Royal as the National Assembly president: He or she is chosen by the 577 deputies in the chamber. Still, Royal is currently a favorite to win the job.

Hollande gave exactly one-half of his 34 cabinet ministries to women, but Royal did not receive one.

David S. Bell, professor of French government and politics at the University of Leeds in the U.K., suggests that this unusual scenario simply reflects political expediency, so it is possible to imagine personal issues are being sidelined.

“Segolene Royal was trounced in the Socialist Party primaries for the presidential candidacy,” Bell said. “Any hope of a future role must [given the dispositions of power and age] lie in Hollande's hands.”

Bell added that Royal played a solid supporting role in the presidential-election campaign against Sarkozy this year and that she will probably be rewarded with the parliamentary presidency: If the Socialists win a majority in the June parliamentary elections, it is likely to be under Hollande's control.

“All this depends on how vindictive or rancorous people are, and in this case personal slights seem to be consigned to the past,” Bell said.

Power And Prestige

James Shields, professor of French politics and modern history at Aston University in Birmingham in the U.K., indicated that the president of the French National Assembly is analogous to the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. In France's case, he or she occupies the fourth-highest office in the land, after the president, prime minister, and president of the Senate -- the upper house of the country's parliament.

The role is partly ceremonial and partly that of an institutional guardian of procedure, overseeing the workings of the National Assembly, ensuring that process is followed in the day-to-day functioning of debating and legislating, Shields said. The post also has a number of important constitutional prerogatives like nominating three of the nine nominees to the august Constitutional Council, the highest constitutional-judicial body in France.

So, although the post can be influential, its powers are very circumscribed institutionally, and the role might be said to carry more prestige than real political power.

The epic relationship between Hollande and Royal has taken some bizarre twists and turns, to say the least. Just last year, she sought the Socialist party's presidential nomination herself -- and she even insulted her ex by sarcastically asking, Can anyone recall anything Francois Hollande has done in 30 years?

But after Hollande won the election, Royal thrust herself into the center of the triumphant hurricane by making an emotional victory speech for the Socialists at the Place de la Bastille in Paris.

Thank you, people of France, Royal said. Thank you, one and all. This victory is yours. And we are here to turn this victory into social and human progress.

With respect to Hollande's complex romantic entanglements, Shields noted that there is no precedent during the Fifth Republic for a president entering office unmarried and living with his partner. All six previous presidents (excluding Alain Poher, who twice served as an interim officeholder) were married -- although Sarkozy went from second marriage to divorce to third marriage during the early months of his presidency.

Hollande's situation poses some potentially delicate questions of protocol for visiting countries with a much more conservative attitude to marriage [such as some strict Muslim countries], not to mention the Vatican, for whom an unmarried companion twice-divorced would not be deemed a suitable consort, Shields said.

The University of Leeds' Bell noted that the personal lives of French leaders did not really become media fodder until the rise of Sarkozy. “Prior to Sarkozy, personal 'affairs' were not really published in the newspapers,” he said.

“You would be hard-pressed to think of many first ladies in the French case, and those who appeared were only fleeting images [for example, who was Mrs. de Gaulle?]. There were, needless to say, many entanglements, and these affairs were probably well enough known to the elite [like Francois Mitterrand's “second family”], but the public generally did not know about them.”

So, will Hollande therefore come under pressure to formalize his relationship with Trierweiler by marriage?

No doubt in some corners of the [French] media and of public opinion this will be an expectation, Shields said. But the role of first lady is not an official role in France, so in the end this may remain a purely private decision for the couple.

Speaking Of Affairs Of State

Indeed, a quick glance at France's economic indicators will confirm that the French are going to have much bigger matters on their minds than Hollande's marital status in the months ahead.

“It is more mature to judge politics by issues and policies or results than marital status,” Bell said. “But this is the beginning of a new era so it is not yet totally clear how the public will take it.”

As for Trierweiler, she seems to have no political ambitions of her own and seeks to hew to an independent path. She recently told French media: In France, a first lady has no status, and therefore she isn't supposed to do anything else. My perception of life is not to ask Francois Hollande, who isn't the father of my children, to support me financially.

Meanwhile, even without the current melodrama and intrigue, Royal has a very interesting family background.

For one thing, despite Royal's deeply committed Socialist ideology, her cousin Anne-Christine Royal is a member of the National Front, the extreme right-wing, anti-immigrant party that had an impressive showing in the first round of France's presidential election in April.

Anne-Christine Royal was reportedly a left-winger during her youth, but she switched allegiances after marrying a National Front supporter, with whom she supposedly has had 10 children.

In March of last year, Anne-Christine Royal ran as a candidate in the cantonal (county council) elections under the National Front banner, having also been a candidate in the parliamentary elections of 2007. She lost both contests, but remains a party member.

Segolene appears to have remained guarded about what she thinks of her cousin's political orientation, Shields said. In any case, in France this sort of decision is usually seen as a matter of strictly personal political choice.

Bell noted that such political eccentricities are quite common in France. “The French political elite is littered with renegade cousins, spouses, siblings, etc., and the other Royal is not a major national figure,” he said, adding, “For example, Frederick Mitterrand, a cousin of the former Socialist leader, was a minister for Sarkozy.”

Moreover, during the 1999 European elections, none other than the grandson and namesake of iconic former French President Charles de Gaulle ran under National Front colors.

However, Segolene Royal, had she followed her own family's political trajectory, might have become a devoted right-winger herself.

Shields said her father, Jacques Royal, a military officer, was by all accounts an austere, authoritarian, and ultraconservative husband and father.

Segolene Royal was one of eight children, born in Dakar in what is now Senegal in 1953 and brought back to France with the family in the 1960s.

She went on to gain a privileged Parisian higher education despite the reportedly unenlightened views of her father toward the education of girls, Shields said.

In the 1970s, she would eventually sue her father [successfully] for refusing to grant his then-estranged wife a divorce and provide for the education of the younger children. The left-leaning Socialist views of Segolene Royal today are in opposition to the highly traditionalist Catholic conservative milieu in which she was raised.

'Kingmaker Vs. Royal' Has Kind Of A Ring To It

If Royal does indeed ascend to the National Assembly presidency, she may have to contend with lawmakers who share the right-wing sympathies of her father and cousin. In the first round of France's presidential election, Marine Le Pen gained almost 18 percent of the total vote -- a stunning result, and the highest tally the National Front has ever won.

Le Pen even became a kingmaker of sorts by refusing to endorse either Sarkozy or Hollande in the second-round poll and by casting a blank ballot in protest. This action likely torpedoed Sarkozy's chances of re-election as hordes of National Front supporters refrained from voting for him, despite Sarkozy's strenuous efforts to co-opt their harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Given the momentum arising from her first-round electoral success, and with a real chance of putting National Front candidates into parliament, Le Pen may be positioning herself to become the face of the opposition.

The ambition of the National Front in next month's parliamentary elections is quite simply to cause as much trouble for the mainstream conservative UMP party as possible -- and preferably to cause it to fracture, Shields said.

He noted, The National Front will seek to do this by retaining its candidates in any of the 577 constituencies where they clear the bar of 12.5 percent of the electoral register on the first ballot [which, depending on turnout, can be as high as 18 percent or even 20 percent -- a rather high bar to cross].

While the UMP is likely to gain a large number of seats in parliament, Shields forecast, the question of how to deal with a newly invigorated National Front is uppermost among the dilemmas of a party seeking now to replace the departed Sarkozy as its leader.