Royal bid for presidency failing, say party critics

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Socialist mandarins in France are growing increasingly anxious about the unconventional campaign of their presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, who faces an avalanche of bad opinion polls in the next couple of days.

One Socialist leader took the extraordinary step of "bugging" a private campaign meeting by leaving his mobile phone open to a reporter at the newspaper Le Monde while colleagues argued tactics with Mme Royal. In the private conversation on Tuesday night, reported in detail in the newspaper yesterday, a string of Socialist leaders complained that Mme Royal had been too "passive" and inaudible while her main rival on the centre-right, Nicolas Sarkozy, launched his campaign with great success at the weekend.

"We need political speeches," one politician told the meeting of the campaign's steering committee. Others said that Mme Royal should have attacked M. Sarkozy or generated alternative headlines of her own.

Mme Royal, 53, has decided to run a "grassroots" and "participative" campaign, in which she "listens to" voters before making her own pronouncements. This phase of her campaign is due to last until 11 February.

Replying to criticism during the private meeting "bugged" for Le Monde on Tuesday, she said: "We have to keep our nerve... We are doing things which are perhaps less visible, and cost less money, but they will give greater credibility and strength to our presidential campaign."

For several weeks, there has been tension between Mme Royal's "action committees", which run her "grassroots" campaign, and the Socialist party leadership, which wants a more conventional approach. The conflict has been given added spice by the fact that the party's leader is her own partner, François Hollande.

M. Hollande caused consternation in his wife's camp a few days ago by announcing that a future, Socialist programme of government would require tax increases for anyone earning over €4,000 (£2,800) a month. Mme Royal repudiated the statement. M. Hollande accepted this week that it was for the candidate to decide.

Earlier, however, he protested that his comments could not have run counter to Mme Royal's proposals on taxation, because she "had never made any". Relations within the couple are said to be somewhat strained.

Mme Royal believes that she can win the election in April and May with the same unconventional tactics with which she captured the Socialist party nomination last autumn. Although a senior figure in the party for 15 years, she ran as an outsider whose programme would be shaped by the "real" concerns of the electorate, not by party dogma.

Mme Royal is convinced that this approach fits the mood of a nation which has grown cynical about mainstream politics.

Hard-boiled party officials and politicians fear that the gloss may be starting to come off the "Royalist" method. She has generated mostly negative news coverage in recent weeks with real or apparent gaffes during foreign expeditions to the Middle East and China.

In China last week, she repeatedly wore white, the Chinese colour of mourning. She stayed clear of human rights questions but praised the Chinese justice system for being "more rapid" and "efficient" than the courts in France.

A series of opinion polls today and tomorrow is expected to show M. Sarkozy moving ahead of Mme Royal. Until recently, Mme Royal has been slightly ahead, or neck-and-neck with M. Sarkozy in voting intentions for the two-round presidential election on 22 April and 6 May. Mme Royal and her closest advisers insist this is just a blip and that her "I-listen-to-you" style of campaigning will ultimately capture the nation's anti-political and anti-establishment mood.

Old-campaigners within the Socialist party say that this is all very well but that most electors gather their impressions from the television news and the newspapers. Mme Royal's unconventioial approach risks being drowned out by the more traditionally media-focused campaign of M. Sarkozy.