Analysis: France's first female president?

By HANNAH K. STRANGE, UPI Correspondent

LONDON, Aug. 21 (UPI) -- France is firmly in the grip of "Segomania," as former Socialist minister Segolene Royal surges ahead in the polls to become the favorite to succeed Jacques Chirac in next spring's presidential elections.

Over 4,000 people flocked to the tiny Burgundy village of Frangy-en-Bresse Sunday to hear the woman tipped to become the country's first female president call for a "democratic revolution."


Three people were injured, according to media reports, as the crowd pushed forward to steal a glimpse of the phenomenon that is Segolene Royal. Arnaud Montebourg, the radical Socialist deputy, announced amid cheers that Frangy -- population 600 -- had just seen its first riot.

The rally coincided with the release of a poll in Dimanche Ouest-France giving Royal a commanding 13-point lead over conservative Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy for next year's elections, making her the only Socialist candidate capable of beating him.


The poll, carried out by the IFOP institute, indicated Royal would beat Sarkozy in the two-candidate second round of the presidential election next May by 55 percent to 42 percent.

While Royal has not yet won her party's nomination for the presidency, the swell of popular support around her campaign makes her selection all but a foregone conclusion.

The Dimanche Ouest-France poll found that she was the only Socialist candidate capable of beating Sarkozy, while all her rivals, including party leader and long-term partner Francois Hollande, would be defeated by him.

Although the French must officially wait until November to learn whether Royal's name will grace their ballot papers, most believe the stage is now set for "Sego versus Sarko," as the pair are familiarly known.

The 52-year-old unwed mother of four has her critics. A divisive figure within her own party, Royal is accused by Socialist rivals and center-right opponents of being a lightweight politician with insufficient experience to preside over the Republic. Although she was environment minister under Socialist President Francois Mitterrand and headed the education and family ministries under Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, critics say she never held a top portfolio.

Meanwhile, her stance on social and economic matters has at times got her into trouble with both the left and right. While she has embraced her party's liberal line on issues such as same-sex marriage and adoption, she has displayed a more conservative attitude with campaigns against violence on television and juvenile delinquency. She has also caused a stir among Socialists with her criticism of the 35-hour working week established by Jospin and her reticence to back measures such as guaranteed employment.


However it is perhaps this ability to cross social and political lines that has won her the deluge of support she is currently experiencing. Like British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former U.S. President Bill Clinton -- arguably the two most successful politicians of recent times -- Royal represents a synthesis between the left and right, and is unafraid of setting out her own distinct position. Despite her Socialist roots, she does not shy away from speaking out on family values or criticizing the liberal elite.

A relatively young and fresh-faced woman, most commentators agree that a "President Royal" would buck the popular French stereotype of the "caviar left" -- affluent, bourgeois and super-liberal.

The sneering remarks made by members of the mostly male Socialist old guard about her gender have only served to boost her popularity. "Who will look after the children?" sniped former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, a possible challenger, after Royal declared her willingness to run for the presidency. While other would-be Socialist contenders originally believed her status as a woman would cripple her in France's male-dominated political culture, it has in fact bolstered her as a symbol of change in a country fast losing faith in the current establishment.


Economic stagnation, rising unemployment levels and a series of riots have left France questioning its identity and direction, while the implication of several prominent government figures in the Clearstream corruption scandal has reinforced the sense that the political establishment is in decay.

It was this desire for a different type of politics that Royal sought to embody at the Frangy rally, where she told voters they had a clear choice between the "courage" and "need for deep change" she stands for and the "brutality" and "inertia" of Sarkozy's conservatives.

Seeking to solidify her leftist credentials, she compared her style to that of Mitterrand and pledged to wage "a decisive battle" against the ruling center-right UMP.

"Two visions of France and two opposing conceptions of the exercise of power -- that is what is at stake in the presidential elections in eight months' time," she told the crowd.

Royal promised to revive the French political system with "a more participatory democracy" with a greater emphasis on decisions taken by public referendum.

Describing France as "ailing," she said her program would be focused on reducing unemployment, to which she attributed the country's social inequalities.

But she also attempted to straddle the center ground by calling, in a manner akin to that of Blair or Clinton -- for the Left to "re-appropriate" individual responsibility as a left-wing value. She would create a "Republic of Respect" and restore the value of work, she suggested.


"I claim this heritage of Mitterrand and I am proud of it," Royal added. However, like Labor centrists in Britain, she also spoke of the need to update the Socialist Party, "with fidelity to our values, but without fearing innovation."

In a sign that Royal could potentially prove even more difficult for the U.S. administration to deal with than Chirac, she launched a scathing attack on the "simplicity" of President George W. Bush's "axis of evil" policy. "No-one other than George Bush thinks that the world is safer since the invasion of Iraq," she said.

While Royal has yet to transform her popularity into votes, the scenes at the Frangy rally indicate a popular fervor around her campaign not seen since Mitterrand's rise to power in the early 1980s.

Patrick Devidjian, an adviser to Sarkozy, said Sunday that her selection as the Socialist candidate was guaranteed. "They will choose Ségolène Royal because she is the only one who can win," he said in an interview with the weekly newspaper Parisien de Dimanche.

"Mitterrand took control of the party from the left and governed to the right," he added. "If Ségolène Royal were elected, it would be the opposite."

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