France's Royal riding high on way to presidential election

November 21, 2006 - 0:0
PARIS (AFP) -- France's leading left-wing candidate for presidential elections due next April, Segolene Royal, is opening wide the throttle on her campaign after winning the support of her Socialist Party and a large proportion of voters.

Following a party primary last week which saw her easily awarded the Socialist candidacy over two rivals, Royal's supporters believe she is on track to become France's first woman president.

The 53-year-old ever-smiling and planning her next moves as she positions herself against her likely opponent on the right: the equally popular interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.

"Things have to be articulated, the hierarchy needs reconfiguring, we need to go from being a small campaign shop with only a few workers to a much bigger level," one of Royal's spokesmen, Gilles Savary, said.

The Sunday newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, ran a poll showing that the main reason Royal appeals so strongly to French voters is because she is a woman.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin added to that uncertainty on Sunday when he insisted that France's ruling party had not yet decided on a presidential candidate.

"I don't think we're at the end of the political debate about the eventual candidate of our family," Villepin told France 5 television.

Royal, a one-time protégé of late Socialist president Francois Mitterrand, has given little away of her policies.

In her triumphant speech after the primary, she borrowed from both Mao and John F. Kennedy, calling on the French to "climb the mountain to victory" and to ask "what they can do for their country".

Even Jean-Marie Le Pen, the far-right French ultranationalist who made a surprising showing in the last presidential election in 2002 before being soundly trounced by Chirac, has been acid in his appraisal.

On Sunday, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera ran an interview with him in which Le Pen dismissed her.

"As a politician, Segolene has no substance. But as a marketing trick, she's perfect," he said.

"She dresses well. But she has an execrable character. I prefer women to be soft and gentle," he said.