Socialists' Royal biggest winner of CPE tussle

10th April 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, April 9, 2006 (AFP) - As the French government grapples with the fiasco of a botched youth job reform, the Socialist Ségolène Royal is staking an ever stronger claim to carry the left-wing banner in next year's presidential election.

PARIS, April 9, 2006 (AFP) - As the French government grapples with the fiasco of a botched youth job reform, the Socialist Ségolène Royal is staking an ever stronger claim to carry the left-wing banner in next year's presidential election.

Smiling out from the cover of four French magazines this week, interviewed on the main evening news, the elegant 52-year-old is suddenly everywhere and the so-called 'Ségolène factor' an established feature of the political scene.

"Is she ready?" asked the VSD weekly, while Paris Match, under the headline 'Segolene awaits her hour', devoted an eight-page spread to her "march" to become France's first woman president.

Royal, the president of the western Poitou-Charentes region and the partner of Socialist Party leader François Hollande, has all but eclipsed her left-wing rivals in the popularity ratings since the start of this year.

Polls suggests she is the only candidate on the left capable of challenging the centre-right favourite in next year's election, ruling UMP party chief and interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

For her supporters, the former minister and mother of four children brings the promise of renewal, as a fresh face on a political scene dominated by grey-haired men and seen as increasingly cut off from voters.

Unlike other Socialist figures, Royal has not been seen locking arms with protestors during the upheaval over the government's First Employment Contract (CPE), which makes it easier to fire under 26-year-olds.

But she took a controversial public stance against the contract — saying her region would hold back grants from companies that used the measure, which she says gives off the wrong "signal" to France's youth.

"It strengthens the idea of France's decline," she argued in Paris Match, "to tell the younger generation: 'You can be sacked easily just because you are young'."

Though in many ways a traditional Socialist, Royal has stirred passions by speaking of her admiration for Tony Blair, and dismissed as "ideologically simplistic" the contempt in which he is held by much of the French left.

"There are good things to take from all sides, from all European countries which have the same problems as us and which are trying to drive down unemployment," she told Paris Match.

"The French are waiting for something that their politicians are unable to provide," she said.

But she is careful to reject the notion of labour 'flexibility' — reviled by many in France — speaking of 'agility' instead, and points to Denmark as a successful example of a fluid job market combined with strong social protection.

With Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin badly weakened by the job reform crisis, many commentators are predicting a Sarkozy-Royal run-off in next year's election.

"I will be ready if the time comes," Royal told Paris Match.

Short of a manifesto, she has set up a website called 'Desires for the Future', with a political discussion forum whose contents will be published in book form in the autumn.

But even with the polls on her side, Royal faces a major challenge to bring round the powers-that-be inside her own camp, with an internal vote to select a candidate due in November or December.

Jockeying for position with party heavyweights including former ministers Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Laurent Fabius and Jacques Lang — Royal has faced months of sniping from the party ranks.

Initially the target of misogynist remarks, her rivals continue to criticise her for having no structured project, and some accuse her of exploiting the party machinery to further her ambitions.

"Some liken her to Uma Thurman in 'Kill Bill', cutting up her opponents with a media sabre. Others see her as a kind of Mother Theresa who attracts irrational devotion," wrote the Nouvel Observateur.

Party members "will not choose the cover of Paris Match", Socialist deputy Jean Glavany snapped this week, warning that the PS candidate would be chosen based on "content" and "ideas".

For political scientist Dominique Reynie, Royal "embodies a need for renewal on the left. She is not a flash in the pan, but mind you her real test is only just beginning."

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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