'New faces' lead race for French presidency

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The Independent Online

The battle for the French presidency next year is developing into a two-horse race between two experienced politicians successfully posing as "new faces", Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy.

Opinion polls suggest Mme Royal, on the centre-left, and M. Sarkozy, on the centre-right, are ahead of other likely runners in the first round of the presidential elections next April.

One dark cloud on the horizon is the resurgence of support for the leader of the xenophobic, far-right National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, 77. Despite his advanced age and despite the emergence of another extreme nationalist contender, M. Le Pen is attracting the support of many people angered by the suburban riots last autumn and the recent student unrest.

Judging by the early polls, however, the 2007 election should avoid the scattering of first-round votes that allowed M. Le Pen to win through to the second-round run-off four years ago. Support on the left and right is already coalescing behind two candidates who - although not officially declared - have fired the imagination of moderate voters. Both say they represent change and a fresh approach to politics. Both have been part of the political establishment in France for more than two decades.

Mme Royal, 52, the president of the Poitou-Charente region, and a former education and social affairs minister, continues to crush all other potential candidates on the left - including her partner and father of her four children, the Socialist Party leader, François Hollande.

In two polls in recent days, she has attracted just over 30 per cent of all electors, including many votes from the right and centre.

Although criticised by Socialist rivals as bland and lacking in concrete ideas, Mme Royal is now in a strong and possibly unassailable position to become the first woman to represent a large party in a French presidential election. Her fluent performances on television - and the fact that she is a woman - have allowed her to represent change but not brutal change.

On the centre-right, the early polls are equally dominated by M. Sarkozy, 51, the Interior Minister and president of the main party, the conservative Union pour un Mouvement Populaire. M. Sarkozy has gained and suffered from the humiliating retreat of the government on its "easy-hire, easy-fire" jobs contract for the young. With the collapse of credibility of his colleagues - and bitter rivals - President Jacques Chirac and the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, M. Sarkozy has also risen to just over 30 per cent in recent opinion polls.

However, polls suggest Mme Royal could beat M. Sarkozy in the second round of the presidential elections next May to become the first "Madame la Presidente" in French history.