Royal row: Ségolène aide quits campaign over 'zig-zag' policies

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The struggling presidential campaign of Ségolène Royal drifted further into confusion and internal party bickering yesterday.

One of the Socialist candidate's chief economic advisers has resigned amid accusations of "amateurism" and "disorganisation" in her campaign.

New opinion polls suggested that a landmark speech by Mme Royal at the weekend - including a 100-point "pact" with the French people - had failed to revive her floundering attempt to become France's first female president.

The Socialist Party's chief economic strategist, Eric Besson, stormed out of a party meeting on Wednesday after quarrelling with François Hollande, the party leader and Mme Royal's partner. M. Besson is reported to have protested against "zig-zags in strategy" and "idiocies" by her other advisers, who wanted to ban public discussion of the cost of new and expanded social programmes announced by Mme Royal on Sunday.

To add further insult, Mme Royal was booed by schoolchildren when she visited the training ground of the France rugby team south of Paris. Some aides suggested that the children were not anti-Royal; they were simply annoyed that rain had prevented them from joining the players on the pitch. Others saidthe children had been encouraged by far-left teachers.

All in all, it has been a disastrous couple of days for Mme Royal in a week that was supposed to mark a new and more aggressive phase in her unconventional run for the presidency.

Her weekend speech concluded the much-criticised "listening" stage of her campaign. Grassroots reaction has been excellent. Socialist leaders had been hoping for an upwards "bounce" in her poll ratings.

A series of surveys taken since the weekend still place her six to eight points behind her chief rival, the centre-right candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, in voting intentions for the second round of the 22 April and 6 May elections. Hopes of relaunching her campaign - or even preventing a complete melt-down - now rest on Mme Royal's performance during a two-hour primetime question and answer session on television next Monday. M. Sarkozy's TV appearance two weeks ago was regarded as a success; Mme Royal cannot afford to stumble on air.

Socialist leaders were trying yesterday to present M. Besson's walkout as an act of personal pique.

Although he refused to comment publicly, friends said he had been exasperated by Mme Royal's failure to establish clear lines of strategy and communication within her campaign.

She, and some of her advisers, thought that it was tactically more astute to avoid debate on the cost of her promises, including extra spending on job creation, schools, research and housing. Others, including M. Besson, thought they had authority to price her plans at €35bn (£24bn).

It was illogical, M. Besson argued, for Mme Royal to stress the burden of France's national debt in her speech, and then not face up to the cost of her own programme and how it was to be funded.

Behind this quarrel lies the frustration and anger of many Socialist chiefs at Mme Royal's failure to co-ordinate the often conflicting impulses of veteran Socialist Party activists and her separate, youthful campaign team, Désirs d'avenir.

The danger for Mme Royal is that, as in the last election in 2002, the Socialist vote may now scatter to far-left parties, or go to the centrist candidate, François Bayrou.

The latest poll, for CSA-Le Parisien, puts M. Sarkozy at 33 per cent in the first round of voting, Mme Royal at 26 per cent, the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen at 14 per cent and M. Bayrou at 12 per cent. Only two candidates go forward to the second round.

A Socialist mayor of a large provincial town told The Independent: "Without being too harsh on Mme Royal, she is not convincing people that she has the calibre to be a stateswoman. To run for president is not the same as running for prime minister."