Royal promises 'beautiful chapter' in the history of France

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The Independent Online

France's Socialists formally launched Segolene Royal's candidacy yesterday to compete in a fierce presidential race with high stakes for her and her party: Royal wants to be France's first female president and the Socialists are desperate to win back power after 12 years under Jacques Chirac.

"Together we are opening a beautiful page in the history of France. A new hope has risen in France, like a gathering wave that can only grow," Royal told a crowd of 1,500 at a Paris congress hall.

Royal's nomination speech focused on defeating the ruling conservatives and integrating minorities, a key priority following riots by largely immigrant youth last year in neglected housing projects nationwide. A former family and environment minister, Royal said the nation is in need of new ideas, but offered no solutions for France's flagging economy.

The Socialist Party's No. 2, Francois Rebsamen, officially announced the results Sunday of the November 16 vote by party members that gave Royal a decisive 60 percent of the vote, beating two male rivals from the Socialist old guard.

The vote result, and Sunday's upbeat event, suggested the long-fractured party was ready to set aside differences in its bid to beat the conservatives' likely candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The two-round presidential elections are next April and May. Both Royal and Sarkozy are charismatic and divisive, and polls currently show them neck and neck.

"It's a beautiful day for the Socialists, it's a beautiful day for the left, but what counts is making next May 6 a beautiful day for France," party leader Francois Hollande told the gathering.

Royal took the stage to a standing ovation, with the crowd chanting "Segolene."

She assailed "the arrogance of the government, the lies of the state" and promised - as she has throughout her campaign - to restore voters' confidence.

Royal owes her surprising rise in the polls this year in part to her glamorous style, in part to her gender in a country thirsting for change, and in large part to her grass roots politicking. She says voters are tired of being dictated to, and she has avoided staking out firm positions on foreign policy or economic growth by saying voters should be consulted first.

Critics say that tactic proves her lack of substance, and that she's too inexperienced to run a major European economy and nuclear power.

She insisted Sunday she was ready for the challenging campaign ahead.

"There will be pitfalls," she said. "There will be tumbles but we will rise up again, there will be wounds but we will heal ourselves, there will be traps but we will go around them."

Royal's nomination gives the Socialists a solid head start on their campaign. Sarkozy's governing UMP party will not officially name its candidate until Jan. 14, and has been showing signs of fracture just as the Socialists are lining up behind Royal.

Hollande, meanwhile, urged Sarkozy to step down from his post as interior minister to conduct his campaign.

"We must allow France to have a full-time interior minister ... in these times of insecurity and violence," he said.

Royal has made a point of not trying to imitate men in her race to France's top job. An avowed feminist, she favours skirts and talks often of how her policies would affect her four children.

She thanked Socialist voters Sunday for choosing her as their first woman presidential candidate.

"More than two centuries after Olympe de Gouges" - a French Revolution-era feminist - "you have made a truly revolutionary move," she said.

Spain's socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Italy's centre-left Premier Romano Prodi sent congratulatory messages read at Sunday's gathering. Michelle Bachelet, Chile's groundbreaking woman president, sent a note calling Royal's nomination "a major step on the path to equality."

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