Socialists back a woman in race to lead France

Posted in Europe | 17-Nov-06 | Author: Elaine Sciolino| Source: International Herald Tribune

Segolene Royal at the polling station on Thursday.

PARIS: Ségolène Royal moved a step closer to becoming the first female president of France early Friday, crushing her two male rivals for the Socialist Party nomination in next April's election.

With most of the vote in, Royal, 53, a regional president and former minister, won 60.6 percent of the vote of the party's nearly 219,000 members in an unusual primary.

Her closest rival, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, 57, a former finance minister, received 20.8 percent of the vote, and Laurent Fabius, 60, a former prime minister, 18.5 percent.

The tally in France ended around 1:30 a.m. and will be complete after overseas territories finish voting.

"I am living intensely this moment of happiness," Royal said after the preliminary results were announced. Thanking the party's "grass roots" members, she added, "The fact of receiving this momentum, of being chosen in this way, this is something extraordinary. I think that the French people have written this story."

The victory helped validate Royal's standing as the only candidate capable of beating the right's frontrunner, Nicolas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister who is seeking his UMP party's nomination for the 2007 presidential election.

An Ipsos opinion poll released on Thursday found Royal and Sarkozy statistically tied if they were to face off in a second round of voting, after other candidates had been eliminated.

Royal's victory followed months of mudslinging and maneuvering in a campaign that pitted her against the party's older, more established - and male - "elephants," whom she had dared to challenge.

Campaigning on a platform of "rupture" with the status quo, she has also capitalized on her femininity while accusing her competitors of chauvinism.

"Gazelles," she said last May, "run faster than elephants."

Responding to voters' disillusionment with traditional elitist politics, she is promising more power to the people, giving local governments more authority, subsidizing small businesses, creating affordable housing and encouraging citizens to submit their ideas online, for example.

Even her opponents agree that her looks help. Published photos of her in a turquoise bikini while on vacation last summer underscored her youthfulness and glamour, while in poll after poll, her telegenic smile and elegant profile have appealed to a French public yearning for a new style of leadership.

Royal, president of the Poitou-Charentes region in the west, has also cultivated an image as a grass-roots nurturer, taking her campaign to the countryside to listen to concerns about social issues such as educational reform and youth crime.

With a portfolio that includes stops at three second-tier ministries - Environment, School Education and Family and Childhood - Royal has been criticized as lacking the experience and gravitas to lead a country that is a nuclear power and has the world's sixth-largest economy.

Her inexperience in foreign policy issues surfaced last week when she said during the last campaign debate that Iran should never be allowed to have a civilian nuclear energy program. As her opponents quickly pointed out, Iran enjoys that right as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

But the party members' enthusiasm for Royal seemed to trump any slips on policy issues.

"Her victory means that the Socialist Party is still under the shock of April 2002 and is looking above all for a candidate who can win," said Dominique Reynié, a professor of political science at the Institut d'Études Politiques in Paris. "Much more important than a doctrine or a program is the look of a champion."

In the April 2002 presidential election, the Socialist candidate, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, was eliminated in the first round, trailing even the far-right National Front candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Going into the primary, Royal enjoyed a strong lead in the polls, although she had lost ground steadily in recent weeks to Strauss-Kahn, largely because of his performance in their six policy debates, three of which were televised.

Royal was helped by the withdrawal from the race in September of Jospin, a fixture in French politics for nearly three decades.

The three candidates, all deputies in the National Assembly, voted in their home districts on Thursday. Strauss-Kahn continued to campaign on Wednesday, even though his 86-year-old mother had died the day before.

The fourth of eight children, Royal was born in Dakar, Senegal, where her father was an army colonel, and earned admission to the elite École Nationale d'Administration.

It was there that she met François Hollande, her partner of 25 years and the father of her four children. The head of the Socialist Party who is believed to have harbored presidential aspirations of his own, Hollande has remained neutral.

Royal was repeatedly attacked in the campaign as naïve and inexperienced. In addition to questioning her foreign policy background, her opponents and other critics mocked her proposal to create "citizens" juries to pass judgment on the work of elected officials, calling it dangerously populist, costly and irrelevant. At one rally in Paris last month when she discussed the issue, she was booed repeatedly.

During one debate, she defended her call for a less centralized, more representative form of government, saying: "Democracy is like love. The more there is of it, the more it grows."

She has also been criticized by her rivals for playing the woman card. At a rally in Paris last Monday, she quoted Strauss-Kahn as having said after their final debate that "she would have done better to stay at home instead of reading from her recipe cards."

Asked by Europe 1 radio Wednesday whether she was a liar, Strauss-Kahn replied, "That, or she is ill informed."

While opinion polls put her far ahead as the vote approached, it had been impossible to say whether those projections would be borne out in Thursday's primary. Only party members who pay about $25 a year to register officially were allowed to vote in the primary. Their views had never been polled because the Socialist Party refused to give its membership list to polling institutes. In addition, a full third of the party's members joined this year after a campaign to register new and younger members, using the Internet as a recruiting tool.

There have been two Socialist primaries before, but they were low-key affairs and they did not follow a campaign to enroll new members or televised debates similar to those in the United States.

In January, the UMP party will choose its candidate in a primary for the first time.

Despite Sarkozy's overwhelming lead in the polls, there are signs that 12 years might not be enough for President Jacques Chirac. In an interview in the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, his wife, Bernadette, suggested that he might seek an unprecedented third term.

As a former president, the 73-year-old head of state has the right to sit on the country's Constitutional Council once he is no longer president.

"Yes, he'll take it up," Mrs. Chirac said of the council. "In five years' time."

Chirac himself has said he will not make his intentions known before next March.