Left-wing backlash casts shadow of doubt over Ségolène Royal's 'secular miracle'

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A "secular miracle" will occur in France tomorrow, according to Ségolène Royal: a country which has rarely taken female politicians seriously - a country which refused women the vote until 1945 - will install a woman as presidential candidate for a leading political party for the first time.

Or will it? Mme Royal, 53, told the final Paris rally of her Socialist "primary" campaign that she was certain she would emerge triumphant when the 218,000 members of the Parti Socialiste vote for their candidate tomorrow afternoon.

"I feel something strong building in the country," she said, "something that reminds me of 1981 [when her mentor, the late President Francois Mitterrand, became the first Socialist to be elected President of France]." A month ago, few would have doubted her. It seemed that Mme Royal was cruising to victory in the first full-scale primary in the history of French politics.

The latest opinion polls still put her far ahead of her two, more experienced male rivals, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Laurent Fabius, but in the past couple of weeks doubts have begun to emerge.

Second thoughts about Mme Royal have been stirred among some Socialist "militants" by an often nasty primary campaign, fought as much on partisan blogs on the internet as in public meetings and in three dull televised debates.

Mme Royal's rise in the opinion polls since the start of the year has been attributed to her being perceived as an "outsider", someone closer to the concerns of "real" people than ideology and jargon. By having to appeal directly to Socialist Party members, she risked damaging her wider support while failing to convince the die-hard leftists.

Those who hoped that she would fall flat on her face in the three televised debates were disappointed. But some party members have begun to wonder whether she is tough enough to unite the wider French left and beat the centre-right and the far right next April. Other "militants" care only whether Mme Royal - who argues for a kind of socially conservative, people-before-ideology state activism - is sufficiently left wing.

Some of the nastier blogs accuse her of being a "far-right" religious conservative in disguise. She was shaken last week by the publication on the Web of a film of 10-months-old comments in which she seemed to accuse state school teachers of laziness. Teachers have a large and influential voice within the Socialist Party.

There is also some doubt about the accuracy of the opinion polls. The pollsters may correctly measure the preferences of habitual Socialist "voters" but that is not necessarily the same thing as the Socialist Party members who have the right to vote tomorrow.

The former education and environment minister has dipped in the most recent poll from 63 per cent to 58 per cent.

She still seems certain to come ahead of her male rivals today, but will she scoop more than 50 per cent of all the votes cast and win outright on the first round? If she fails to do so, Mme Royal will be plunged into a second round against the runner-up next week. All the forces of conservatism, of leftism, of misogyny, of "anyone but Segolenism" will be unleashed within the Parti Socialiste. She would still be expected to win but might emerge as the damaged leader of a divided party before the start of the presidential campaign proper.

Much will depend on the allegiance of the 80,000 Socialist Party members who have joined through a recent internet recruitment campaign. Are they, as her opponents allege, mostly "Segolenistes" in disguise?


Ségolène Royal

Age 53

Career so far The president of the Poitou-Charentes region in western France has been the minister for the environment and a junior education minister. She pledged in her campaign to give France a new "desire for the future" and "justice with order". Opponents accuse her of being ideologically unsound and of having insufficient experience in the big offices of state to be the first woman president.

Latest poll ranking 58 per cent

Dominique Strauss-Kahn

Age 57

Career so far The former finance minister, in British Labour Party terms, would be an "Old Labour" reformer. He has campaigned as social democrat, capable of pushing through reforms that France needs to be competitive, without abandoning its welfare protections. He has risen in the polls following the three televised debates.

Latest poll ranking 34 per cent

Laurent Fabius

Age 60

Career so far Youngest prime minister in French history, between 1984 and 1986, lost his way but re-emerged as finance minister in 2001-02. Originally a European and a moderniser, he has re-invented himself as a leftist Eurosceptic seeking to build a new base in the party. Despite red-blooded socialist, anti-liberal rhetoric in the debates, his poll ratings have remained low.

Latest poll ranking 9 per cent