Tearful Royal stops listening and starts talking

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A passionate, and occasionally tearful Ségolène Royal yesterday proposed a 100-point, largely left-leaning "pact" to build a "new" France. In an assured two-hour speech to 15,000 supporters just outside Paris, the Socialist presidential candidate ended a much-criticised "listening" phase of her campaign by announcing a detailed programme of government.

Although Mme Royal, 53, presents herself as a non-ideological politician, close to the people, her programme was mostly a standard, left-of-centre litany of proposals for state spending and intervention. She did, however, promise to de-centralise and reform the state machine; to lift the tax burden on businesses that invest in new techniques or create jobs; and to create military boot camps for delinquent youngsters .

At one point, Mme Royal promised that, if elected, she would care for France - especially young French people - "like a mother".

Speaking of the country's troubled multiracial suburbs, she said: "As a mother, the things that I wanted for my own four children, I want for all the children of France." Mme Royal was then interrupted by five minutes of cheering and chants of "Ségolène Presidente". She blinked tears from her eyes before continuing.

The speech had been widely billed as a turning point in Mme Royal's struggling campaign to become France's first woman president. Over the past two months, she has adopted a passive, "listening" approach, gathering the views of ordinary people though provincial meetings and internet forums.

She has also committed a series of gaffes and been the target of relentless mockery and some dirty tricks from the campaign of her chief rival, the centre-right interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy. As a result, and through his own slicker and more direct campaign, M. Sarkozy has taken a substantial lead in polls ahead of the 22 April and 6 May, two-round election.

Yesterday's speech was billed as Mme Royal's chance to strike back and harvest the fruits - in policy ideas - of the "participitive" phase of her campaign. "Something important is happening today," she told the enthusiastic, young and multiracial crowd in Villepinte, north of Paris.

France faced a series of crises, she said, "a social crisis, an economic crisis, a moral crisis, an environmental crisis and an international crisis". "To surmount these crises, we need a new politics. We need a new France. That is what I propose to construct with you." There seemed, however, to be a mismatch between this sweeping diagnosis and Mme Royal's very specific list of cures. Although she dwelled on France's growing state debt (64 per cent of GDP), she suggested a raft of spending proposals on research, housing, schools and medical care. Her only suggested savings were from reforming the "heavy central state apparatus" and shifting many functions to regional or local government.

Mme Royal's ideas came partly from the Socialist party's own programme but partly from 135,000 suggestions put forward by the public. Her 100-point "pact of honour" with the French nation proposes a sharp increase in the minimum wage; a 5 per cent boost in "small pensions"; large boosts in spending on universities and research; a cap on some private rents; a "lifetime guarantee" to tenants; and living grants for poor students.

There are also ideas which could help Mme Royal reach out to the right and centre. She proposes a reform of school catchment areas to give parents more choice; a reform of the 35-hour working week; and boot camps for delinquents.

No one can now suggest that Mme Royal has no proposals. If anything they are too detailed and give the impression of someone running for prime minister, rather than head of state. There was little to give a sense of overall vision.

In an earlier speech, M. Sarkozy mocked Mme Royal's "listening" campaign as a device for avoiding hard choices. He said he would be a non-ideological president, interested in "sincere ideas" not party labels.