Segolene Royal rises to TV debate challenge

18th October 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Oct 18, 2006 (AFP) - France's Segolene Royal, frontrunner for the opposition Socialist Party nomination in next year's presidential elections, emerged from the first of three televised debates against two seasoned rivals with her chances intact, newspapers said Wednesday.

PARIS, Oct 18, 2006 (AFP) - France's Segolene Royal, frontrunner for the opposition Socialist Party nomination in next year's presidential elections, emerged from the first of three televised debates against two seasoned rivals with her chances intact, newspapers said Wednesday.

On policy as well as style, many commentators declared it a virtual tie, with a slight advantage for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former finance minister, over both Royal and the former prime minister Laurent Fabius.

But the two hours of questioning, carried live on French news channel LCI, were primarily seen as a litmus test for the popular Royal, who critics have accused of avoiding issues of political substance in her pre-campaign.

"Out in the Socialist arena, will the fair Segolene be eaten alive by the old lions of the party?" was how the left-wing newspaper Liberation summed up the stakes in the debate, devoted to economic policy.

"In fact, she did better than stand up to them: she secured a draw."

For political analyst Alain Duhamel, Royal "ran the greatest risk, both because she has the least experience and because she is ahead in the race (but) she didn't put a foot wrong."

Duhamel, along with several papers, found Strauss-Kahn "most comfortable", both physically at ease and competent on the nitty-gritty of the debate -- but he warned there was little chance of "reversing the trend" that has enshrined Royal as the people's choice for the nomination.

"People are totally convinced that Segolene Royal is the only one capable of defeating Nicolas Sarkozy," the interior minister and frontrunner to represent the centre-right in the election next April, he told RTL radio.

Dressed in a cream suit, Royal, 53, opened proceedings declaring she was "a candidate in order that the left may win, and then in order that France may succeed."

"France is getting poorer and poorer, but it need not necessarily be so," she said, calling for new investment in "labour, innovation and the environment".

Strauss-Kahn, 57, described himself as the representative of "modern social democracy", called for new dialogue between business and unions, and issued an impassioned appeal for a reduction of France's debt.

"The left must be the enemy of debt," said the former minister, who oversaw a wave of privatisations in the late 1990s and enjoys a strong appeal among voters of the centre-left.

Fabius, 60, was motivated by France's mounting "inequality and injustice" and launched an attack on "global financial hypercapitalism". He said his ideas were enshrined in the PS manifesto, which includes the extension of the 35-hour week and the renationalisation of energy company EDF.

Last year, Fabius backed the victorious "no" campaign in the referendum on the European Union's proposed constitution, and he poses today as the champion of the poor, promising an immediate big boost to the minimum wage.

But commentators criticised his style as cold and bureaucratic, and his hard-left approach as too contrived.

In the face-to-face, Royal, the president of the Poitou-Charentes regional council and a former junior minister, managed to show her hand to a degree on questions such as labour protection and globalisation.

Overall, however, the rigid format -- with contenders reciting their positions in answer to prepared questions without any spontaneous exchanges -- killed any real chance for drama in the debate.

For the right-wing Le Figaro newspaper, the "serious academic format, a bit on the long side, made terrible television".

"It really lacked spontaneity," complained one reader in Le Parisien newspaper, while another dismissed the exercise as a "joke".

The debate -- to be followed by two more on society and the environment and Europe and international affairs -- is expected to weigh on opinion among the 200,000 card-carrying party members who will choose the PS's nominee at an internal vote on November 16.

Polls overwhelmingly suggest they will choose Royal, who has emerged from nowhere in less than a year to become a strong possibility for France's first ever woman president.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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