French Socialist Using Web to Win Over Voters

Segolene Royal
French Socialist Party deputy Segolene Royal (center) and former minister Yvette Roudy (right) vote during the Socialist Party National convention meeting at La Mutualite in Paris on July 1, 2006. (Benoit Tessier - Reuters)

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By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 21, 2006

PARIS -- Among her Socialist Party allies, Segolene Royal was well liked but considered a bit of a political lightweight -- mother of four, minister of "soft" cabinet posts for the environment and the family, domestic partner of the party's leader, Francois Hollande.

So when she announced nine months ago that she would seek her party's presidential nomination for the 2007 election , some of the old guard dismissed her as a bit player.

"Who will look after the children?" sneered former Socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius.

"The presidential race is not a beauty contest," snapped party stalwart Jack Lang.

Today, Royal, 52, has confounded them all with an Internet-aided insurgent campaign that has propelled her to the top of national polls. Her Howard Dean-style strategy -- going over the heads of party elders with a grass-roots run for office that has proved wildly popular among voters -- could make France's first cyber-candidate its first female president.

"Her strategy is to get the support of public opinion and the polls to put the militants in the Socialist Party in the position where they have no choice but to vote for her" at the party's convention in November, said Pierre Giacometti, a leading French pollster.

"In the polls, she leads, but in the party, she's the challenger, so like Dean, she has created her own Internet campaign" to get the Socialist nomination, said Claude Malhuret, a senior official in the ruling Union for a Popular Movement, the party of President Jacques Chirac. Malhuret is orchestrating his party's own Internet campaign for next May's presidential contest.

Cyberspace has helped Royal brand herself as a political outsider and relative newcomer at a time when polls show that French voters are fed up with disarray and paralysis in government and are pining for a fresh face.

Her campaign Web site ( http://www.desirsdavenir.org/ , which translates as "Desires for the Future") features blogs that solicit views on the economy, unemployment and immigration. Chapter by chapter, she is writing and publishing a book on the site that has been likened to a political manifesto. She recently shook the Socialist Party hierarchy by using her Web site to criticize one of its sacred cows -- the 35-hour workweek, adopted as law of the land by the party when it controlled Parliament in 1998. Several blogs that her aides claim are independent also are pushing for her candidacy.

And a link on her site to a Socialist Party membership drive helped draw 80,000 new members in three months, pushing party rolls to 210,000, according to Vincent Feltesse, the party's secretary for new technologies. Membership has topped 200,000 only twice before, he said, in the 1930s and in 1981, when Francois Mitterrand was elected president at the start of 14 years in office. The link was removed from Royal's site when the drive ended.

Poised and chic on the one hand, plain-talking and combative on the other, Royal has crossed several political minefields without getting blown up. In addition to criticizing the 35-hour workweek, she has suggested military boot camp for delinquent youths and expressed admiration for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is anathema to the French left. The government should freeze child benefits to the parents of problem children, she has said. Those mothers and fathers should instead be sent to parenting school. She recently said she does not oppose gay marriage and adoptions.

Socialist allies have attacked her views, and even party leader Hollande -- her longtime partner and father of her four children -- has occasionally distanced himself from her. "She takes risks, she makes proposals," he said recently on France 2 television. "I don't share them all."


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