The first thing that you notice about Ségolène Royal is how small she is. Mme Royal has a "tall" face: that is to say she has the kind of face which suggests a tall, beautiful and elegant woman. But she is not tall.
Beautiful and elegant she certainly is; or rather she has become so over the years. When she first became a minister, 14 years ago, she had a rather geeky image, with dreary clothes, unmissable teeth and large, Marje Proops glasses. Now the glasses have gone, the clothes are understated but chic, the teeth have been corrected.
Ségolène Royal is maybe 5ft 2in tall in her pea-green woollen suit and golden shoes as she makes a triumphant progress - a Royal progress - through the village of Arçais. We are in the Marais Poitevin, a beautiful, marshy area of her constituency in the Deux-Sèvres, just east of La Rochelle in western France, a kind of French Norfolk Broads.
Hereabouts, everyone calls her just "Ségolène" or, more officially, "Madame la Présidente". She has been president of the region of Poitou-Charente for the last two years (with mixed reviews). Twelve months from now, if the opinion polls are to be believed, Royal may have become Madame La Présidente de la République. Next April, she may well become the first woman to represent a large political party in a French presidential election. Next May, she could be the first woman to reach the second round - a two-candidate run-off. If she wins, she would become the first woman to lead France since Joan of Arc six centuries ago.
Sexist beasts though we British are, we at least have had Boadicea, Good Queen Bess and Margaret Thatcher. The French have had an unbroken succession of male leaders, from Charlemagne to Chirac. Even Joan of Arc was probably more of a mascot than a military or political leader.
Royal, aged 52, is led through the village by 10 old men playing trombones, clarinets and trumpets: Les Copains Musiciens du Marais (the Musical Mates of the Marsh). They are playing, tunelessly, the song they use for village wedding processions: "The Marriage March, Number Four."
According to Charles de Gaulle (who invented it), the executive presidency of France should be decided by a mystical, almost romantic "encounter between a man and a people." In de Gaulle's mind, the choice of a French President is not a political decision, but a kind of marriage.
The nation and republic of France is always represented as "Marianne", a young woman in a revolutionary cap. More crudely, Dominique de Villepin, the poet-Prime Minister, likes to say (unpoetically) that France is a woman who has an "itch in her loins" that needs to be ravished by a buccaneering man.
Royal, though a Socialist, has rather conservative social views. She is fiercely opposed to single-sex marriages. She makes an exception, however, for her own putative marriage next year to La France, and to "Marianne".
This sunny afternoon, Royal is in the marshland village of Arçais to pay tribute to her late mentor and boss, François Mitterrand, the only Socialist to have won a presidential election in the Fifth Republic (ie since 1958). It is the 25th anniversary of Mitterrand's first victory. Most of the other Socialist notables are attending a meeting in Mitterrand's former fiefdom 250 miles to the north east. Royal has invented her own commemoration - on the slight pretext that Mitterrand once inaugurated a plan to preserve and develop these beautiful, Poitevin marshes.
In fact, Royal is pursuing her strategy of keeping her distance from the other - grumpy, male - Socialist presidential wannabes. When she first declared a possible interest last September, they mocked her chances. (" Who will look after the children?" chortled ex-Prime Minister Laurent Fabius.) The grumpy male wannabes have since become desperately alarmed by the meteoric rise in the polls of "silly little Ségolène" .
In the most recent survey, 50 per cent of the Socialist voters questioned thought that Ségolène was the best presidential candidate. The next highest scorer, the ex-Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, got 14 per cent. Other polls suggest that Royal also appeals to centrist and even some right-wing voters and could therefore beat the new darling of the French centre-right, Nicolas Sarkozy, in the second round.
Intriguingly, the other Socialist hopefuls may still include her " husband" of 25 years, the father of her four children, François Hollande. As first secretary of the Parti Socialiste for the last eight years, Hollande would normally expect to follow the previous party leaders, Mitterrand and Lionel Jospin, as a presidential candidate. What François thinks of Ségolène's runaway early (unofficial) candidacy is one of the best kept secrets in French politics. (By Ségolène's choice, the couple are not married. François does most of the cooking.)
Last week, Hollande, an honest and thoughtful man, said that he was still considering throwing his own hat in the ring when the Socialist party members decide who to choose as their candidate in November. The latest polls give him three per cent of the vote.
So is this food for animated discussion over the breakfast table when François serves up the café and croissants? Their friends say that they have decided that whichever is "best placed" will be the candidate. Hollande is said to have warned Ségolène that, if another politician - Lionel Jospin? - stands a better chance of winning, he will tell her, frankly, to stand aside.
* Down by the canal side in Arçais, near a couple of cafés and a fleet of beached punts, Royal gives an interesting speech to 100 local people and a small group of foreign, and French, journalists. It is mostly a local speech about the splendours of the marshes but she jumps, rather cleverly, at the end, to the future of France - and to the future leader of France.
When Mitterrand came here in 1992, Royal recalls, he spoke of "passing the torch" to a new generation (subtext: why not me?) Mitterrand, she says, believed that politics was a question of "seizing the moment" . He believed that there were propitious moments, when "history can be made to accelerate" (subtext: the stars are aligned perfectly, the waters of the Red Sea are parting for a woman President).
According to Ségolène, Mitterrand also believed that political decisions - the need to reform, to modernise, to face the challenges of a rapidly changing world - could only succeed if they united the nation. They must be rooted in the "slow sedimentation of the history of France" (subtext: do not listen to all those opinionated foreigners, or to Sarkozy. They speak of the need to make France more like Britain, or the US. Non, non et non. We can reform France and still be France). This short, and mostly unreported, speech comes as close as Royal has yet dared to an official declaration of her candidacy.
Is France - irredeemably macho in its political culture - ready for a woman President? If so, is Royal the right person to heal a divided nation? Does she have new ideas that can help a (partially) failing France to succeed and yet to remain true to itself? After an annus horribilis of four crises - the rejection of the EU constitution; the riots in poor multiracial suburbs; the successful street protests against a new youth labour law; the ineffable Clearstream "smear" scandal which is tearing apart the French right and discrediting the whole political class - France desperately needs a new start and a new Messiah. Instead of a Messiah, will it choose a Madonna?
During her tour of the village, Ségolène stops - royally - to shake hands in a small shop and factory for wooden toys. Afterwards, the owner, Denis Quertain, 40, a "green" and a "conservative", tells me: "Yes, Ségolène can win. Why not? All the male politicians are worn or discredited. Just the fact that she is a woman helps her to seem fresher. She speaks in a way that people understand, without too much of the usual jargon. She seems to care about the things that ordinary people care about. Children. The environment.
"Whether she can genuinely do anything to help us is another question. It seems that anyone who tries to change things in France brings half the country out on the streets in protest. It would be no different for Ségolène."
So who is Ségolène Royal?
She is a mass of contradictions. She came from a right-wing, ultra-Catholic, military family and became a left-wing rebel. She presents herself as political outsider who's close to the people, but she has been to all the best finishing schools of the French political élite, including the mocked, detested, but still influential Ecole Nationale d'Administration. It was here in 1978 that she met François Hollande. De Villepin, the embattled centre-right Prime Minister, was a fellow énarque (graduate) of their class.
Ségolène's father was aconservative general who thought that women should remain in the home. He had eight children but said that he had "five children and three daughters". He abandoned the family when Ségolène was in her mid teens. She spent the last part of her childhood in some penury and reached ENA - the pinnacle of French academic success - through brilliance and scholarships.
She is one of the few members of the Socialist political élite in France to have known any real struggle in her own life. She says that it was her father who turned her into a socialist and a feminist. Forbidden to speak at the table because she was a girl, she decided at the age of 10 to prove that women could do anything that a man could do.
There are, however, other less creative contradictions in Ségolène Royal. She believes in "participative democracy" - listening to the grass roots. Nonetheless, she has a reputation for being autocratic and a bit of a bully, rather like her dad.
She says that she is interested in the best of what is achieved abroad. She caused a stink in the Parti Socialiste by saying in January that the Tony Blair approach in Britain was not all bad. (Blairism is next to child rape in the French Socialist Demonology.)
Perhaps the greatest contradiction of all - and the one that may yet sink her - is that Ségolène is a pro-European, pragmatic, moderate. She seeks to represent a party, and a wider French left, which is entranced by anti-capitalist, anti-European, anti-globalist, abstract ideology.
Her, very clever, way of squaring that circle has been to create the world's first internet-led political campaign (or officially a non-campaign). On her web-site, www.desirsdavenir.org, Royal has been posting, every 10 days or so, the outline chapters of a book. They amount mostly to a description of the mess that France is in - the persistent high unemployment, the discrediting of the political élite, the explosive frustrations in the poor multiracial suburbs, the rise of the xenophobic far right and anti-democratic far left.
People are encouraged to send in their own comments and suggestions. By September, Royal promises that she will incorporate the best of these ideas in a final text. This will, implicitly, be her campaign manifesto.
In other words, Royal, "wife" of the Socialist Party leader, is in effect short-circuiting the party and trying to create her own grass-roots constituency on the internet. It is, if nothing else, a very clever marketing exercise. Over 200 "Ségolène" clubs have already been created around the country to debate and channel ideas. In theory, quite apart from her gender, a Royal candidacy has little going for it. The issues that she holds dear - children, education, health, the environment - are usually those left by French presidents to their ministers and Prime Ministers. Presidents are supposed to have a grand vision of foreign, strategic and European affairs; they are supposed to have a finger on the French nuclear button. Even sympathetic colleagues within the party cannot recall any moment when Royal has shown the vaguest interest in any of these subjects. On the other hand, after 10 years of Jacques Chirac - a man whose strategic vision ended with his own election - the French people may be ready for a different kind of President. All the other likely candidates in the Socialist Party have been compromised by internal battles, or just by the fact that they have been around for so long. Hollande was deeply wounded by the anti-European revolt in the party's leadership and grass roots that led France to reject the proposed EU constitution last year.
On the centre-right, Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister, now looks certain to be the other leading presidential candidate. Sarko v Ségo in the second round next May looks like a decent bet.
Sarkozy may yet win the battle. But the Clearstream scandal - an attempt to smear Sarkozy as corrupt, apparently directed by Chirac and de Villepin - threatens finally to disgust La France Profonde (Middle France). Voters are turning against the whole of the centre-right, including the innocent Sarkozy.
Seen from the provinces, the entire bunch appears more interested in its own dirty-money-soaked power struggles than in the problems of the nation. This mood may benefit (once again) the loathsome far-right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen. It may benefit Ségolène even more.
In any case, Sarkozy's sincere belief in the need for "rupture" with France's political and economic traditions - the need to impose market realities on a country still psychologically dependent on the state - is disturbing to many people, even on the right and centre. If all French governments have failed and been rejected for 25 years since Mitterrand came to power, it is partly because popular protests have blocked all bold or imaginative reform.
France is an unusual place. In other countries, politicians lie to the people. In France, they do so too. But the people also lie to the politicians. They say that they want change but they are terrified by it. The mass of middling voters in France are scared of any change that might threaten the relative job security and state provisions of those who are "inside" the French system. The system's many outsiders - from third-generation immigrant kids of Arab or African origin to jobless white students - are paid lip service but no more.
Thus Ségolène's greatest political strength may be her apparent greatest weakness: the fact that she is a woman. She is different because she is not a man, but she threatens no real change. Something different that will, fundamentally, change nothing? That matches exactly the exasperated, and perverse, mood of the French electorate.
Ségolène's many critics within the Parti Socialiste say that she has no concrete ideas. This is true in part, but just as true of other candidates, even Sarkozy. For the time being, "Royalism" or "Ségolènism" - like early Blairism and Clintonism - is more an " I feel your pain" political style than a programme.
But Ségolène should not be dismissed lightly. She has a real and refreshing ability to connect with people. She has humour. If she can do something to regenerate France's confidence in politics - any politics - she could yet be a force for much good. Whether she can really change France, while preserving the best of France, is another question altogether.
During an American presidential primary, I once attended a "drive-in" press conference. A minor candidate drove along a line of journalists, stopping to answer questions. What we have in the Poitevin marshes is equally bizarre (and very Ségolène Royal): a floating press conference.
After her speech, Ségolène and a couple of local officials embark on a punt. The motley collection of journalists commandeers three others. As one press punt comes alongside, Royal answers a couple of questions. When that punt falls back, it is the turn of another to draw closer and bombard her.
The briefing - with journalists from Spain, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and one from Britain - continues around a picnic table on the shore. Nicolas Sarkozy shuns the foreign press. There are no votes in foreigners, he believes, only traps. Royal enjoys the attention thoroughly. She is like a 12-year-old girl at her own birthday party, allowed to perform, with some skill, all her favourite tricks. Calculated informality. Confident modesty. She rejects sexist politics while playing to her feminine strengths: charm, humour, quick-wittedness.
The former Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, said of Ségolène: "From a distance, she is attractive. Up close, she irritates." There is some truth in that. Ségolène, up close, generates a great warmth, while preserving an inner cool. A chill, even.
No, she says, she is not yet a candidate. Only the members of the Socialist Party can make her the candidate. She is, all the same, delighted that the polls show that she has the trust of the electorate. The opinion polls are not an election but they "tell their own story". The polls deserve to be taken seriously.
François Mitterrand's slogan had been "force tranquille" (quiet strength). What would be hers? She smiles and says: "Force tranquille souriante" (smiling quiet strength). Can she imagine that the self-important, grumpy old men of the Parti Socialiste - the "big beasts" in British political slang; "les éléphants" in French political patois - will ever learn to respect and support her?
"I don't know. I hope so," she says, flashing another of her dentally improved smiles. "Someone once called me a gazelle. I am told that gazelles run faster than elephants." She giggles and adds: " That's only for the foreign press. Not the French." She knows that the French press will lap up the quote. They do.
Royal dispatches the policy questions with aplomb but with little concrete information. Europe? The EU constitution is dead, rejected by the French, not because they rejected the European ideal, but because they had lost confidence in how the "European project" can influence their lives for the better. The way forward is not another abstract constitution, but "concrete European achievements, in environmental protection, youth employment, public health, research, which would convince people once again that Europe can serve them and help them." (This is fair enough but is exactly what Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac say.) The stuttering French economy? "I see many things to admire in the Scandinavian model. Not as something to copy line for line. When I said that I admired some aspects of what Tony Blair had done, I was accused of being a Blairist. No, I am not Blairist. I look for and acknowledge what works elsewhere. In Denmark, for instance, people move jobs frequently without feeling threatened. We need something of that agility in France.
"I don't say 'flexibility', because that has come to mean eroding the rights of workers. Industry needs agility to respond to the challenges of the globalising economy, but that agility must not just be at the expense of concessions from those in employment. Agility must also apply to employers, the government, to everyone."
Is she a socialist? And if so, what kind? "Of course, I am a socialist and I would be a socialist candidate. Socialism means to me what it has always meant. The need to ensure that all parts of society have access to opportunity, to healthcare, to education and that we adapt to the way the world is changing to make sure that those things remain possible. I am, most of all, interested in the practical, in what works."
On France's place in the world, she says: "We have to be much less arrogant. We must, of course, defend our interests and our point of view. But I think that, in many cases and on many occasions, our arrogance - what is seen as our willingness to lecture others - has damaged our interests. We must act in a way which is appropriate for a country the size and strength of France. We must be careful to avoid arrogance."
Such a commitment would be welcome to many people abroad. It is hardly a foreign policy. She is asked by one journalist whether she discussed presidential politics with François Hollande. She bristles and rejects the question as "perfidious", as a "gadget" - in other words a trick
"I am not going to have my relationship (with Hollande) used against me. We are not in an Anglo Saxon country here..."
The journalist protests that he is neither perfidious nor Anglo Saxon. He is Swiss.
"With François Hollande, I talk about politics at home because we share the same passion but we never talk about the presidential campaign. We are at once united and free, just as we have always been."
One last question from the ranks of journalists. Will she eventually respond to the attacks of the macho, ex-ministerial Socialist mafia? And if so how? "With humour," she says. "But I will also have to start to listen carefully to what they say because, one day, I will have to have a proper reply for them..."
She sweeps away. I have not heard the first part of her answer. I ask a colleague next to me. How did she say that she would respond?
There is a rap on my arm. Ségolène is standing next to me. "I said with humour," she says. She grins and walks away.