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Royal Finds Female Voters Resistant

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 S?gol?ne."

S?gol?ne Royal on the campaign trail in eastern France.
S?gol?ne Royal on the campaign trail in eastern France. "It's not enough to say, 'I'm a woman, therefore everything will be different,' " one observer says. (By Michel Euler -- Associated Press)

"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 S?gol?ne 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.

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