Royal Finds Female Voters Resistant

By Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 18, 2007

PARIS -- Like many French women, 44-year-old Annie Gros has watched the campaign of Socialist Segolene Royal with the heady prospect of seeing a triumvirate of women lead three pivotal Western powers: Royal in France, Hillary Rodham Clinton in the United States and Angela Merkel in Germany.

Now, barely five weeks before the French presidential election, the voters who should be among Royal's strongest constituencies -- Gros and other French women tired of male dominance in every political and professional sphere in France -- are among her toughest critics. Their disenchantment is helping drive Royal toward third place in opinion polls.

"When I started hearing about her a few months ago, she seemed to be different and new," said Gros, a Paris teacher, clutching a bag of groceries on her way to pick up her daughter from school. "In a few months, she lost all her credibility. It's a shame, but I'd rather abstain than vote for her now. . . . She's not a strong woman like Angela Merkel or Hillary Clinton."

Female critics often say the 53-year-old Royal simply has not measured up to the standards of competence and leadership that are required of a president of France. They say that she plays to her femininity but is not a feminist and that she too frequently blames France's sexist attitudes for hobbling her campaign.

"It's not enough to say, 'I'm a woman, therefore everything will be different,' " said Christine Ockrent, one of the country's most prominent television journalists and author of a recent book about female politicians. "Women voters, especially elderly women voters . . . want a secure, competent leader. Somehow Ségolène Royal has not convinced them."

A poll conducted last week by the Ipsos group showed that 28 percent of respondents who are likely to vote said they would choose Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the candidate for the ruling Union for a Popular Movement party, in the first round of voting April 22. Royal has the support of 25 percent, and Francois Bayrou, who is casting himself as an alternative, anti-establishment candidate, is favored by 24 percent. Other polls place Royal and Bayrou even, with about 23 percent each.

But Ipsos tracking surveys for 11 days in early March showed that Sarkozy polled on average about 8 points higher than Royal among women. One day, the spread was 14 points.

Female voters "are more worried about financial issues and the future jobs of their children and the economic situation -- and that's even more important to them than to men," said Ipsos head Pierre Giacometti, explaining why Sarkozy's support among women was stronger.

On Friday, Royal's campaign suffered a new attack from a once-friendly quarter. Eric Besson, a former Socialist Party colleague, was quoted in the newspaper Le Figaro as saying he feared for the future of his children if Royal was elected.

Women are also much more concerned than men by questions of Royal's competence, Giacometti said, which she fueled early in the campaign with a series of gaffes, particularly on foreign policy issues.

"Some women are saying it's not good for women that the woman is showing a lack of competence," said Jean-Luc Parodi, research director at the Center for the Study of French Political Life.

In a poll by the LH2 firm published last week in the newspaper Liberation, 50 percent of those surveyed said that Sarkozy was the most competent candidate, compared with 22 percent each for Royal and Bayrou.

In an interview published in the financial daily Les Echos on Thursday, Royal complained that France's sexist attitudes were hampering her campaign. It was difficult to "convince French people" to vote women into positions of political power, she said.

"People are always more demanding of women when they are in a high-profile position," said Elisabeth Guigou, a former justice minister and an adviser to Royal. She said it was "very strange, but the question of competence never comes up for Mr. Sarkozy, who has committed much bigger mistakes than Ségolène."

"We have the feeling she has very strong support among women," Guigou said. "All women, even among the right wing, are very proud that for the first time it is possible a woman could be president."

Royal is a member of the National Assembly and mother of four who has spent most of her adult life in politics, including in cabinet positions for environment, education and family issues. Now she is facing many of the same problems as women seeking presidencies and other powerful political positions around the world.

When she was competing for the nomination of her party, one of her male rivals, Laurent Fabius, publicly asked, "Who'll take care of the children?"

France ranks 22nd among European Union states for the percentage of women in its parliament -- at just over 12 percent. In a worldwide comparison, France is listed as 87th -- below Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates, where the percentage of women in parliament is nearly double that of France, according to statistics from the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

"I've heard very harsh comments coming from women against Ségolène Royal, sometimes harsher than men," said Olivia Cattan, 39, president of Women's Words, a new association that is attempting to persuade presidential candidates to promote greater gender equality. "A lot of them tell me that Royal's attitude turns them off. They criticize the way she speaks; they say that she is not spontaneous enough."

Unlike Germany's Merkel, who played down her femininity to the point of refusing to kiss babies on the campaign trail, Royal has used her motherhood, her winsome smile and a wardrobe of white jackets, flouncy skirts and red suits as campaign tools to suggest to the French that as a woman and mother she is more attuned to their daily problems. That understanding, she suggests, would make her better qualified to change the country's stagnant economy and declining international image.

The argument does appeal to many women, especially younger ones. "I'm convinced that she can bring something different with her candidacy," said Elsa Rodde, a 26-year-old lawyer, eating a sandwich on her lunch break. "Her mother qualities may be an asset if she doesn't go too far. As a mother, she is aware of today's world and the problems everyone faces. I'd like to give it a try because France was never run by a woman and by definition women don't rule the same way as men do."

Others said the appeal to gender was off-putting.

"She's getting on my nerves every time she focuses on her motherhood," groused Gilou Combel, a 65-year-old retired teacher. "Of course women can have children. So what? That's not the reason why I'll vote for her . . . but because I don't like the others."

Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company