A listening Royal awaits the result of her political experiment

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The Independent Online

In a hall in which ice-skaters leapt and pirouetted in the 1968 winter Olympics, Ségolène Royal is fighting for her political life. She is sitting in the audience and taking notes.

Speaker after speaker, all young, some eloquent, some hardly audible, some near-hysterical, take the microphone. Ségolène calmly takes notes. The young people analyse, sometimes cleverly, the reasons why France, especially young France, is alienated from mainstream politics. For almost two hours, Ségolène says little and takes notes. This is, depending on your viewpoint, a foolish gimmick, an absurd evening of "political karaoke", or the brilliant strategy which will defy the opinion polls and make the Socialist Mme Royal France's first female president in May.

Her main rival, the centre-right Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, 52, is running a classic, modern, campaign of glitz and simply formulated ideas, photo-opportunities and sound-bites. Mme Royal, 53, is running a post-modern, "listening" experiment in what she calls "participative democracy". Her approach may provide the world with a new political model. Or it may skid on the ice of fickle French public opinion and fall flat on its back. The polls suggest that the Royal campaign is skidding. She insists that her modest, I-don't-have-all-the-answers approach will give unstoppable, popular appeal to the second, "talking" phase of her campaign which starts in a week's time.

The Grenoble meeting is the last of four "participative debates" attended by Mme Royal. Another 5,000 smaller meetings have been organised on her behalf and several Ségo-forums exist on the internet. In a participative debate, there is no platform of local, party-political bosses. The audience is arranged like a chat show, with a wandering host with casual jumper and trendy haircut. At the end, Mme Royal does give a combative 60-minute speech but the star of the evening is, in theory, not the candidate but the young audience.

The young people want to talk about jobs, racism and the cost of housing. They say that in a France devoted to "Egalité" poorly-connected young people - white, brown or black - cannot reach the bottom rung of the ladder, never mind the top. A plump, eloquent young man in a grey jumper says: "It is easy to run a series of multimillion-euro campaign meetings in front of the TV cameras. It takes guts to listen. Bravo, Ségolène." In theory, all the ideas and comments from the 5,000 "listening" meetings, and the internet sites, will be distilled into Mme Royal's programme of specific proposals, due to be unveiled from 11 February. Conventional Socialist campaigners complain that this is too late.

They also fear that the Royal programme will try to please everyone and annoy Socialist core voters; or end up just like the official, Socialist manifesto and make the "listening" campaign look like a sham. Either way, they say, standing aside from the sound-bite game for two months was an error. The media vacuum inevitably filled up with a series of "gaffes" by Mme Royal and dirty-tricks by the Sarkozy camp.

Another problem was evident at the Grenoble meeting. Such events are supposed to reach out to an alienated, apolitical electorate. In truth, almost everyone in the former ice-skating venue was a paid-up Socialist or "Royalist" activist or long-time sympathiser. Instead of preaching to a radically new audience, Mme Royal is preaching to the converted in an unconventional way.

When she did speak, she spoke well but it was the usual, maddening Ségo-mixture of the platitudinous - "young people are the future of France" - and the over specific. Under a Presidente Royal, there would be free contraceptives to all women and girls under 25. There would be free driving lessons for young people who did well in their exams.

And yet and yet ... The mostly young audience had enormous affection for, and took great energy from, Mme Royal. She obviously draws great energy from being, or seeming, close to the people. Not everyone in the audience was young. Thérèse Oriol, a 70-year-old retired, psychiatric nurse, said: "I have seen all the Socialist leaders here. I saw François Mitterrand twice. Now there was an orator. He was like a poet. But times move on. Ségolène is right to let the people speak. It feels more modern, less bossy. It makes people feel close to her." It is certainly too early to write her off.

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