Could French voters put a woman in the Élysée Palace?

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The prospect of a woman being elected President of France next spring has moved from curiosity to distinct possibility, according to a poll published today.

Could that woman also be, something virtually unheard of on the French Left, a Blairiste?

The Socialist former health and education minister Ségolène Royal is now the favourite among French voters as the main candidate of the centre left.

A poll published today by the news magazine Marianne also suggests, for the first time, that she is capable of beating the centre right favourite, Nicolas Sarkozy, in the second round of the election proper in May next year.

The half-declared presidential candidacy of Mme Royal, 52, has irritated other would-be Socialist nominees, not least because she is the partner of the party's leader, François Hollande. The couple have four children but have never married, by the choice of Mme Royal.

In recent days, other would-be Socialist presidential candidates have found a new, and possibly more effective, reason to throw stones at Ségolène Royal. She has declared herself an admirer of some of the policies of Tony Blair - a heretical admission for anyone on the French left, even the centre left.

On Friday, Mme Royal, president of the Poitou-Charente region in western France, said that Mr Blair and his pro-market policies were unfairly "caricatured" by the French left. She reminded Blair-bashers in her own party that "Tony Blair won the Olympic Games and we didn't."

This amounted to a direct criticism of her fellow leading Socialist, Bertrand Delanoe, the mayor of Paris, who led the capital's bid for the 2012 Olympics. M. Delanoe backs a third presidential bid by the retired former prime minister, Lionel Jospin. By attacking M. Delanoe's Olympic bid as "dated", Mme Royal was indirectly dismissing M. Jospin as a man of the past.

A couple of days earlier, in an interview with the Financial Times, Mme Royal praised New Labour policies on youth employment and public services. "It does not bother me to state my support for some of (Tony Blair's) ideas. He re-invested in public services. In dealing with youth unemployment, he has had real success by linking greater flexibility with greater security."

Until now, Mme Royal has avoided making detailed policy pronouncements. She is to publish a book on her vision of France's future in April. Some Socialist figures see her pro-Blair remarks as her "first blunder". Voices close to M. Jospin and another former premier and would-be presidential candidate, Laurent Fabius, say she is trying to position herself as a moderniser. If so, they say, she has misread the anti-market mood on the French left.

A CSA poll today suggests that Mme Royal would beat M. Sarkozy in the second-round run-off of a presidential poll by 51 per cent to 49 per cent.