Leading article: Questions of competence

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The Independent Online

Defying convention is one thing. Basic political competence is another. Ségolène Royal's tribulations in the French presidential campaign could be attributed to many things. She is being given a tougher time because she is a woman. Her unconventional style - listening to the people first, talking later - is misunderstood by the media and detested by the old, political war-horses of the Parti Socialiste. The opinion polls - often unreliable in the past - are failing to reflect strong provincial support for Mme Royal and a surge of registrations by previously disaffected, young, mostly left-wing voters.

There are almost exactly eight weeks to go before the first round of voting on 22 April. Much could yet change. There is a problem, however. It is a big problem for the centre-left in France, which was convinced last year that only Mme Royal could beat the fluent, over-confident centre-right candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy. It is a problem for people everywhere who would like - for perfectly respectable reasons - to see a woman succeed.

The problem is Mme Royal. It did not take a great political strategist to forecast that a serious female challenger for the French presidency would be tested on her qualities as a stateswoman. Could she look credible on foreign policy? On defence? Basic competence was all that was needed. Instead, Mme Royal glibly said that China's justice system was more "efficient" than that of France because it was more rapid. She showed that she had no idea how many nuclear-missile carrying submarines France possessed.

This was not misfortune or dirty tricks. It was sheer arrogance on the part of Mme Royal to believe that she need not study such things; that the election could be won only on her chosen battle ground of "participative" democracy and "people" issues, such as jobs and education. Her latest misfortune - the resignation of a key economics adviser, Eric Besson - also points to a basic flaw in Mme Royal's political personality. He wanted to talk openly about the cost of new social programmes that she announced on Sunday. She did not.

Mme Royal presents herself as a different kind of politician, closer to the people, not part of the "elite". There is nothing particularly different or unconventional about not wanting to discuss the cost of what you propose.

So far, Mme Royal has failed to make the transition from triumphant Socialist primary candidate to credible national candidate. She has another chance in a two-hour, television question-and-answer session with voters next Monday. If she fails, there is a real danger that her campaign could melt down and that the popular vote will scatter - as it did in 2002 - to extremes of left and right.

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