Can 'Madonna of the polls' become Mme Présidente?

France has never taken women politicians seriously, but Ségolène Royal is changing that
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The Independent Online

There was a whiff of French political history in the making this weekend as the so-called "Madonna of the polls", Ségolène Royal, formally announced that she would seek the Socialist nomination for the presidential election next spring.

To a standing ovation and chants of "Ségolène Présidente", Mme Royal, 53, told an excited audience in Vitrolles, near Marseilles, that she was ready to "assume, on behalf of France, this mission of conquest and all the trials which it will bring."

Judging by the opinion polls, and soundings within the party, Mme Royal should easily overcome her first "trial" on 16 November, when Socialists vote to choose their candidate.

Mme Royal, president of the Poitou-Charente region, but a relatively inexperienced national politician, now looks certain to be the first woman to become a presidential contender for any large French political party. If she were to win the two-round election in April and May, she would be the first woman to lead France since the 16th century.

Socialists who came to the battered overspill town north of Marseilles on Friday night wore badges showing the party symbol, a red rose in a clenched fist, and the slogan: "Pour nous, c'est elle" (For us, it's her).

In her speech, she repeated many of the other slogans - refreshingly simple to her supporters; maddeningly vacuous to her critics - that have dominated her pre-"primary" campaign. Mme Royal said that, as president, she would push for "order with justice, positive energies, new liberties, sustainable security and a republic of respect".

Mme Royal was dismissed, even mocked, by other leading party figures when she first declared an interest in the race 12 months ago. She has seized a commanding lead in public opinion with clever use of the internet, a daring willingness to reject French left-wing dogma and the use of plain (but vague) language on everyday issues, such as education, health, crime and employment. Her critics - including many senior figures in the party - accuse her of being a populist lightweight who will collapse under the stress of the campaign proper. They say that she has no experience, or ideas, on the real "presidential" issues such as foreign policy, Europe, defence and the economy.

Without daring to use the words, they have accused her, in effect, of being a woman, mostly interested in "soft" issues, not the "serious" male business of presidents of the republic. Whether by accident or by tactical brilliance, Mme Royal's approach seems to have appealed to the mood of an electorate sick of mainstream politics and politicians. Her greatest weakness - the fact that she is a woman in a country which has never taken women politicians seriously - has become one of her strengths.

Three other Socialist politicians have already declared their candidacy or will do so today and tomorrow. They are former finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former prime minister Laurent Fabius and former education and culture minister Jack Lang. The 180,000 members of France's main opposition party will vote on 16 November and again on 23 November if no candidate wins an absolute majority. The leader of the party, François Hollande, said yesterday morning that he would not run because he did not want to "divide" the Socialists by adding to the plethora of candidates.

This was widely expected. M Hollande has been Mme Royal's partner for 25 years and is the father of her four children.

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