Wed, Jan 18, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Royal could be France's next president

SOCIALIST CONTENDER Polls show Segolene Royal is the most popular choice among left-wingers in France and could become the first female to lead the republic


She is elegant, self-assured, strong on what interests her (families, schools, the environment), sensibly vague on the rest (foreign affairs, the economy) and, according to three polls this month, she could be France's first female president.

"The china in a bull-shop", as one commentator called her this week, is Segolene Royal, a former minister who now heads the regional government of Poitou-Charentes and, in a field of ageing and depressingly familiar male faces, is suddenly looking like the obvious socialist challenger to conservative Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy in next year's presidential poll.

"It's early days yet," cautioned a leading political analyst, Pascal Perrineau. "She's certainly far more than just a media darling; there's real popular approval in these polls. But the test will be to move on from what you might call `paper popularity.'"

In any event, Perrineau said, Royal's sudden rise "makes it very clear that the French electorate is deeply fed up with a political class that refuses to field different and younger candidates, or to allow more women into its ranks."

The polls look unambiguous. Surveys by Louis Harris, TNS-Sofres and Ifop show that up to 53 percent of the French think Royal, a 52-year-old mother of four, has "the stature of a president of the Republic."

In two polls her ratings pipped those of Sarkozy, and in all three she finished far ahead of veteran socialist rivals; untainted by the row over the EU Constitution last year. Royal has the backing of 76 percent of leftist sympathizers.

She is also benefiting from the sexism of some leading socialists. When rumors that she might run began circulating, former prime minister Laurent Fabius asked "But who will look after the children?" while a senator, Jean-Luc Melenchon, protested that presidential campaigns were "not beauty contests."

Publicly, Royal, a member of parliament since 1988, has so far said merely she is "ready to take part in the debate" and "available if the French people and the socialists desire." But her new association, Future Desires, is busily channeling and organizing the wave of popular support for her candidacy and her campaign, in all but name, is already under way.

That poses a problem for Royal's partner, the affable Francois Hollande, who as socialist leader is not only a potential if unlikely candidate himself but must try to prevent his party's half-dozen presidential hopefuls tearing each other to shreds before the official nomination in November.

He denies that her popularity is an issue for the party or for the couple, insisting this week: "I am not going to hold it against Segolene for being popular. That would be absurd. She has strengths that the French recognize."

Royal, who has just been to Chile to support that country's first female president, Michelle Bachelet, served notice of her potential in the 2004 regional elections, when she crushed the chosen candidate of Jean-Pierre Raffarin on the then conservative prime minister's home ground of Poitou-Charentes.

Slight, cheerful, invariably immaculate, she ran an admirable and energetic grassroots campaign without the help of any party heavyweights.

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