Leading article: An invigorating force

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Members of the French Socialist Party vote tomorrow in an election that could change the face of France in more ways than one. The voting is to decide the party's nominee for next year's presidential election. And the favourite, as campaigning closed, remained Ségolène Royal, the 53-year-old president of the Poitou-Charente region and the first woman ever to have had a realistic chance of reaching the Elysée Palace.

It is no exaggeration to say that Mme Royal's flamboyant candidacy has lit up the campaign. She toured the country with an energy and sense of purpose that left her male rivals standing. She has pioneered the use of the internet for political campaigning, and has tapped new constituencies, including young people and especially young women. Even if she advances no further, this is an achievement in itself.

Mme Royal's nomination cannot be taken for granted. The opinion polls have narrowed quickly over the past two weeks and she has complained of dirty tricks directed against her, including a recording of apparently injudicious remarks about the workload of teachers posted on the internet. She has also complained of sexism and patriarchal attitudes impairing her chances.

Gender, though, has worked both for and against her. While some have condemned her brazen ambition as unfeminine, chivalry has inhibited others from attacking her too fiercely. A more substantial criticism might be her lack of experience at a national level. While she has the classic CV of an elite French adminstrator, her only ministerial posts have been a year as environment minister and three years as deputy education minister. This has laid her open to criticism that she might be "eaten alive" by the likely centre-right candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, in the presidential contest proper.

But this is to rush ahead. Her most immediate obstacle is the left wing of her own party, which finds her somewhat Blairite embrace of the free market at best hard to swallow and at worst a betrayal of what they believe the party stands for. Their candidate is Laurent Fabius, the party's faded boy wonder. He stands little chance. But the risk is that Mme Royal narrowly fails to win an overall majority on the first ballot and confronts an "anyone but Ségo" alliance the next time round.

Her likely second-round rival would be Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a heavyweight politician and former economics minister who would certainly present a convincing challenge to M. Sarkozy. But France would be the loser. It is not only Mme Royal's centrist policies the country needs, but the invigorating force of her character.