Excitement surrounding the presidential ambitions of Ségolène Royal spilled over into "Segomania" yesterday when 4,000 people crushed into a village in Burgundy to see her, in effect, launch her campaign to become the first woman to lead France in modern times.
Three people were slightly injured when the crowds surged forward and scuffled with TV crews, as the increasingly popular Socialist politician arrived in Frangy-en-Bresse in Burgundy for a weekend political festival.
Mme Royal, 53, has established a clear opinion poll lead over the other candidates in the run-up to the presidential election next April and May. She used the annual festival in Frangy - "la Fête de la Rose" - to make her fullest declaration so far of her ambitions and possible programme. In a 45-minute speech, the former education and health minister promised that - "if in a situation to do so" - she would build a new form of socialist politics, founded on individual responsibility and state protections.
She also took a swipe at the Middle East policy of President Jacques Chirac, saying that France, "to win the respect of the world", should be prepared to act, not just talk.
"I make an appeal, here in Frangy, for the rallying together of all those who want change and want France to stand tall again," she said.
Mme Royal, president of the Poitou-Charente region in western France, is accused by Socialist rivals and centre-right opponents of being a lightweight politician with insufficient foreign and economic experience to be President of the Republic.
Nonetheless, the scenes yesterday in Frangy (Pop. 600) suggest that she has become the first mainstream politician in France to generate popular fervour since the successful presidential campaign of her mentor, François Mitterrand, 25 years ago. Arnaud Montebourg, the radical Socialist deputy who was running the festival this year, announced over the cheers of the crowd: "Frangy has just seen its first riot." More than 4,000 people were estimated to have come to the last day of the festival - more than four times the usual number.
In just under a year, since she indicated tentatively that she might run for the presidency last September, Mme Royal has become the most popular politician in France. For much of the time, she has fought neck and neck for that title with the probable candidate of the centre-right next Spring, the interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
However, in an opinion poll conducted by IFOP for the newspaper Ouest-France yesterday, Mme Royal established a commanding lead over M. Sarkozy for the first time.The poll suggested that Mme Royal would beat M. Sarkozy in the two-candidate second round of the presidential election next May by 55 per cent to 42 per cent.
Other would-be leading Socialist contenders assumed that Mme Royal's popularity was a flash in the pan. They believed that her lack of experience of the top political jobs and the fact that she was a woman would deflate her popularity.
The opposite has been the case. France is hungry for a different kind of politics but is also wary of change. The fact that Mme Royal is a woman, and speaks in a language shorn of most of the usual political cliches, has allowed her to emerge as a "new face", without seeming to threaten abrupt departure from the past. Officially, she is not yet a candidate. Socialist party members will vote for their candidate in November. In her speech in Frangy yesterday, however, Mme Royal came her closest yet to declaring her ambitions formally. She called - in a rather Blairesque or Clintonian way - for the Left to "reappropriate" individual responsibility as a left-wing value.
But she also suggested that a new respect for work should begin with a rejection of the "precariousness" of employment, brought by new technologies and globalisation.Reuse content