Royal's campaign wobbles on gaffes and dirty tricks

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The Socialist presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, is fighting to rescue her unconventional campaign from dipping polls, gaffes, dirty tricks and the growing doubts of other senior party members.

Although Mme Royal insists she has "no worries", an opinion poll yesterday suggested that less than one in three electors judged she was running a "credible" campaign. Some senior Socialist politicians are said to have discussed a "lifeboat scenario": an emergency switch of candidates in early March if Mme Royal's poll ratings collapse.

The candidate and her closest advisers say that opponents, both outside and inside the Socialist party, have misunderstood the national hunger for a different, less slick and overbearing kind of political leader. Long before the first round of voting on 22 April, they insist, Mme Royal's passive, or "listening", style of grass-roots and internet campaigning will prove its worth.

All the same, Mme Royal, 53, seeking to become the first woman leader of France since the 16th century, has decided to go on the attack. During a visit to the French West Indies at the weekend, she blamed her series of misfortunes on dirty campaigning by her principal rival, the Interior Minister and centre-right candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy.

"I am a woman who stands her ground," she said. "The fight is hard ... but I am not scared. The Right does not care what methods it uses but ... we must not allow ourselves to be dragged into a degradation of the public debate."

Mme Royal's difficulties are partly the result of dirty tricks but partly of her own making. Last week, she was hoaxed by a comedian, and known supporter of M. Sarkozy, who telephoned her pretending to be the Prime Minister of Quebec, Jean Charest. When the fake M. Charest spoke of French sensitivities about Corsican independence, Mme Royal laughed and said that "not all French people would be opposed" to severing ties with Corsica. The comedian, Gérald Dahan, then released a tape of what was supposed to be a private conversation.

Corsicans were mostly indifferent. M. Sarkozy and other centre-right politicians spoke of their shock.

Earlier, Mme Royal had also been trapped during a radio interview into revealing her ignorance of defence issues. She was asked how many nuclear-missile-carrying submarines France possessed. "One," she suggested. When the interviewer said "seven", she agreed that it was seven, only to be told that it was actually four. Mme Royal has also been accused of committing gaffes on Quebec independence, Chinese human rights and the conflict in the Middle East.

The real problem, say senior Socialist figures, is not the occasional "Ségolènism" but her failure to generate positive sound-bites for the national television news.Socialist are counting the days until 11 February when Mme Royal is due to issue a list of eye-catching proposals.