Socialists Pick New Face for French Presidency

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 17, 2006

PARIS, Nov. 17 -- Riding a wave of popular disgust with France's political status quo, Ségolène Royal on Thursday used an Internet-fueled, personality-driven campaign to capture the Socialist Party's nomination for president and boost her bid to become France's first female head of state.

Royal, 53, an unmarried mother of four and glamorous protege of French presidential icon Francois Mitterrand, capitalized on her image as a fresh-faced cyber-candidate, running an insurgent's campaign to shake up the stodgy, male-dominated world of French politics. Party officials declared her the winner as vote-counting continued early Friday.

Le Monde newspaper estimated that she captured about 61 percent of the vote in turning back challenges from two party stalwarts -- former finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn and ex-prime minister Laurent Fabius, who both garnered about 19 percent, Le Monde projected.

Royal will carry the Socialist banner in the crowded first round of France's presidential race on April 22, when more than a dozen contenders are likely to vie for the Elysee Palace. The top two vote-getters will run against each other in the final ballot on May 6.

Political analysts expect the final matchup to pit Royal against the current interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, 51, the presumptive candidate of the center-right Popular Movement party, or UMP, which has not decided how it will choose its nominee. Polls show the pair -- who are transforming French politics by borrowing U.S.-style tactics -- statistically tied in a second-round face-off.

"Voters want to go to a new generation of politicians and forget all the past," said Pierre Giacometti, the head of Ipsos polling company. "The impression is that Sarkozy and Royal are a new frontier and represent a new vision and a new political epoch in the Fifth Republic."

About 219,000 registered Socialist Party members were allowed to vote in Thursday's election, and roughly 80 percent cast ballots, the party reported. Royal's victory -- she needed more than 50 percent to win -- was a clear signal that members wanted to rally behind a single candidate and avoid a potentially divisive second round.

Even so, political analysts and opinion surveys suggest that Royal will face a tough challenge uniting the left for the first round of the general election so that it does not splinter its vote and hand a victory to the hard right. That happened to the Socialists in the last presidential contest, in 2002, when the left's vote was so divided that it suffered a humiliating first-round defeat to anti-immigration candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen and his National Front party. Le Pen, who is gearing up to run again, was crushed in the second round by the current president, the UMP's Jacques Chirac.

Chirac has not declared whether he will run, but it seems unlikely. His lackluster stewardship of France in recent years coincided with a sense of political and economic decline, a loss of international stature and a deep national malaise. In a recent poll, only 2 percent of those surveyed wanted him to run for a third term.

French disenchantment with politics-as-usual opened the door for Royal, whose primary campaign avoided deep policy debates and focused instead on her main selling points, which she referred to again and again on the campaign trail: the fact that she is a woman and polls that show she is the only candidate able to beat Sarkozy.

"I am the only one who can win against the right. I embody the profound change that people are crying out for," she declared at a campaign stop last weekend. "For the symbolic father of the nation to be a woman -- now that's a revolution."

France has never had a female president, and only one woman has served as prime minister -- Edith Cresson, whose 11-month term in the early 1990s was widely considered a disaster.

"She is, in a way, a symbol of hope, she's modern -- not the same old politicians everyone grew up with since they were babies -- and she's a woman and a mother and unapologetic about it," said Nicole Bacharan, an analyst at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris. "The discontent in the U.S. with the White House and Congress and Republicans and Democrats -- it's exactly the same here."

Although Royal has written four books and held three cabinet posts -- education, environment, and family and children -- critics disparage her credentials, and many on the left question her adherence to Socialist doctrine, calling her a populist whose candidacy represents a victory of style over substance. She was accused of cynically overplaying the gender card -- using her femininity to attract voters on the one hand, attacking her critics as chauvinists on the other. She recently began reminding audiences that when she announced her candidacy, one of her opponents, Fabius, sneered: "Who will look after the children?"

She has offered a series of headline-grabbing proposals, such as boot camp for juvenile delinquents and "citizen juries" to monitor French politicians. She has criticized one of the Socialist Party's sacred cows -- the 35-hour workweek approved when the party controlled Parliament in 1998. But she has offered few ideas for tackling France's most pressing problems -- particularly immigration, crime and unemployment.

But after she had spent months on the campaign trail, sporting bright, well-tailored suits and colorful blouses, Royal's sharp contrast with the country's traditionally dour politicians won over much of the French public. She achieved rock-star status and typically is referred to by her first name only, or its shortened form, Ségo. Supporters said they made a personal connection with her.

"I don't care if Ségolène has experience or not, she's the only one I can trust," said Adrien Blanc, 40, a restaurant waiter in Paris who joined the party this year.

"I've had enough of the old party elephants," said Damien Beacco, 25, employing the term commonly used to describe longtime party power brokers. "Ségolène is different. Whenever she speaks, it creates momentum and entails change, no matter how shocking her proposals may be."

In what was considered a breach of journalistic decorum and a violation of the privacy rules surrounding politicians, two glossy magazines in August ran pictures of Royal at a beach in a turquoise bikini with her partner and father of her children, Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande. The celebrity magazine VSD ran her photo alongside a JFK-like picture of Sarkozy running bare-chested on a beach, with the headline "Duel in the sun."

Analysts said the willingness of candidates to tolerate and at times court such media coverage is a sign that French politicians are increasingly reaching out to the public.

Both Royal and Sarkozy have sophisticated Internet campaigns. Royal's candidate blog and Web site are credited with attracting many of the estimated 80,000 new members who joined the Socialist Party this year.

Royal also was stung by the new campaign tactics. In an incident remarkably similar to one that dogged the failed reelection effort of Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), Royal was captured on video criticizing French schoolteachers -- a key Socialist constituency -- for not working hard enough. The video was posted on the Internet, where it was reportedly viewed thousands of times. Tape recordings also circulated of Socialists booing and heckling her at closed party meetings.

Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.

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