Presidential hopeful Royal blames 'macho resistance' for dip in polls

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The front-running French presidential candidate Ségolène Royal has protested that "dirty tricks" by a "macho resistance" movement were being deployed to prevent her from winning the Socialist party's official "nomination" this week.

With only a few days to go before France's main opposition party chooses its candidate in next spring's election, Mme Royal has dipped in the polls but remains far ahead of her two, more experienced, male rivals.

Mme Royal, who has faced a bruising four-week "primary" campaign of public debates and private denigration, said yesterday that "strong macho resistance" remained against the very idea of a woman leading a major French party into presidential battle for the first time. "Deep in the bones of some men, the exercise of authority and power and being a woman are contradictions in terms," she said.

Mme Royal, 53, has been angered - and possibly damaged - by the publication last week on the internet of a "private" film taken at a party meeting 10 months ago. In the tape she suggests that some French teachers should work harder and spend more time in their state schools, rather than earn money from private lessons. Teachers in colleges (the schools for 10 to 15-year-olds) should be made to put in a 35-hour week at the school, she suggested. At present, they normally spend a total of 18 hours in class and about the same time "preparing courses" at home.

The comments are possibly damaging to Mme Royal because teachers are a large and influential force within the grassroots of the Parti Socialiste. She has made similar proposals publicly in the past but on this occasion she implied that some teachers were using their home preparation time to earn extra money. She also said that she did not want her comments "shouted from the rooftops" because she knew that the teaching unions would be outraged.

The fishing out of a 10- month-old private tape, and its publication on the internet in truncated form, has been blamed by her supporters on the campaign being waged by her closest rival, the former finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who with his staff has denied all know-ledge of the tape.

An opinion poll published yesterday by the Journal du Dimanche suggested that Mme Royal had the support of 58 per cent of "Socialist sympathisers" and M. Strauss-Kahn 32 per cent. The former prime minister, Laurent Fabius, scored just 9 per cent. A similar poll two weeks ago gave Mme Royal 63 per cent, M. Strauss- Kahn 26 per cent and M. Fabius 7 per cent.

This, however, is a poll of a sample of electors who normally vote Socialist. Their views are not necessarily identical to those of the 220,000 Socialist party members who vote on Thursday.

Although Mme Royal still looks well placed to win - and make French political history - a number of uncertainties remain.

This is the first time there has been a lengthy American-style "primary" campaign within the Socialist party. More than half of the "militants" are relatively new members, who joined as part of an internet campaign to expand its base earlier this year. Many are believed to be "Ségolènistes" but this is far from clear.

Mme Royal needs to take more than 50 per cent of all the votes cast - including spoiled or blank ballots - to win outright. Otherwise, she will find herself in an unpredictable second round vote against the runner-up the following week.