Socialists go for Royal in first round vote

16th November 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Nov 17, 2006 (AFP) - Ségolène Royal, a 53-year-old former junior minister best known till recently for creating paternity leave for new fathers, has emerged from nowhere in less than a year to stand a serious chance of being elected France's first woman president.

PARIS, Nov 17, 2006 (AFP) - Ségolène Royal, a 53-year-old former junior minister best known till recently for creating paternity leave for new fathers, has emerged from nowhere in less than a year to stand a serious chance of being elected France's first woman president.

On Friday she was savouring victory from an overnight vote in her Socialist Party that made her its candidate for April's election, where polls show she has an even chance of beating the right-wing favourite, ruling party chief Nicolas Sarkozy.

Royal's victory in the socialist primary was over two senior heavyweights — Laurent Fabius and Dominique Strauss-Kahn — and bore out her decision to pose as a new kind of politician, happy to be at odds with the party establishment.

With crowd-pleasing looks, a knack for addressing issues of daily concern to millions of voters and a willingness to utter the unorthodox, she has struck a chord in a land where politics is held in poor esteem.

In a month of campaigning for the primary, she revealed "audacity, a determination of steel, a sense of timing and a feel for the issues which people care about," said veteran political commentator Alain Duhamel, who at the start of the year dismissed her as a lightweight.

For someone who has deliberately chosen to present herself as an outsider, the irony is that Royal is a pure product of France's elite politico-administrative system.

She was born in Dakar, Senegal in 1953, one of eight children of a military officer who was a strict authoritarian. Friends say her unbending determination owes much to her childhood fight for independence from his control.

It recently emerged that one of her brothers was among the French secret service squad that blew up the Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour in 1985.

After university she entered the elite National Administration School, where she was a classmate of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin as well as François Hollande, the Socialist Party's first secretary who is also her partner and father of her four children.

Royal entered parliament in 1988 after acting as an advisor for the late president François Mitterrand. She was environment minister for less than a year in 1992, and later held junior posts at education and social affairs, where she won a name as a tough defender of the family, and brought in paternity leave.

Her biggest success was in the regional elections of April 2004, when she wrested control of the western region of Poitou-Charentes from then prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. After that she was designated by the media as a "woman to watch".

Royal is not without her detractors.

Some colleagues on the regional council say she is intolerant and unable to delegate. Rivals in her party say she has cheapened politics with a shameless populism. Others — pointing to her call for boot-camps for delinquents — say she is instinctively right-wing.

On the right, she has also caused a stir. Some media commentators and aides to Sarkozy say she embodies a conservative shift in France.

But one nationalist politician, Philippe de Villiers, dismissed her as a "Soviet-style Barbie" who was going to open the floodgates to immigrants, raise taxes and undermine schooling.

For many in France and in neighbouring countries, however, uncertainty persists as to her true stance on a range of issues — for example Europe, the economy and defence.

But the general consensus was that Royal has blown open the staid world of French politics with a refreshing sense of energy and renewal. Many see her as the perfect left-wing equivalent of Sarkozy, who like her wants a "clean break" from a discredited past.

The stage is being set for a cracking head-to-head between these two faces of a new France.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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