Jospin's tearful return hits Royal's poll ratings

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The Independent Online

The seemingly effortless progress of Ségolène Royal towards the Socialist "nomination" for the French presidential election next year ran into its first serious blip yesterday.

The tearful return to front-line politics of the former prime minister Lionel Jospin - and Mme Royal's sketchy performance at a party conference - sent her opinion poll ratings into a sharp dive for the first time.

The former minister and president of the Poitou-Charente region remains clear favourite to become the first woman to lead a large political party into a French presidential election. Her Socialist rivals, with the exception of M. Jospin, also tumbled in the latest poll.

However, M. Jospin's return to the political scene, and Mme Royal's reluctance to state clear policy positions or to debate with her rivals, seem to have installed the first doubts about her stature and credibility. In the CSA poll for the newspaper Le Parisien and the I-tele TV channel, 47 per cent of those questioned thought that she was the best candidate of the main opposition party.

Before the party summer university, or conference, at La Rochelle last weekend, she stood at a seemingly unassailable 54 per cent.

M. Jospin, 69, rose by one per centage point to 21 per cent. Mme Royal, 52, has carried on regardless, naming four figures from left and right, and the pro and anti-EU wings of the party, to run her still unofficial campaign.

The most significant and intriguing name was that of Arnaud Montebourg, a young lawyer who is a rising figure on the left of the party and a leader of the campaign against the European Union constitution last year. Mme Royal is a centrist who campaigned for a "Oui" in the constitution referendum.

Opinion polls are an important part of Mme Royal's strategy. If her fall from grace is confirmed in further polls, she may begin to struggle.

Other Socialist would-be candidates, such as the former finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, accuse her of trying to bypass the party machinery by making a populist and telegenic appeal directly to the wider French electorate. Grassroots members of the Socialist party choose their candidate on 16 November. Although many are suspicious of Mme Royal's credentials, they are likely to vote for the politician best placed to defeat the centre-right next spring.

At the La Rochelle conference, Mme Royal may have made her first tactical error in refusing to debate directly with other candidates. They were able to attack - without reply - Mme Royal's vague mixture of social conservatism, leftist government activism and belief in power-to-the-people or "participative democracy".

M. Jospin's return to frontline politics following his retirement after his humiliating first-round defeat in the 2002 presidential election also seems to have destablised Mme Royal's campaign. That may, however, prove temporary.

Meanwhile, the hopes of the centre-right of clinging to power have been boosted by strong economic figures. Unemployment has fallen below 9 per cent for the first time in four years. The Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, announcing measures to help the disadvantaged, said that growth should run at more than 2 per cent this year.