Chic, Brash Segolene Stirs Up French Race ; as France Gears Up for 2007 Presidential Elections, Ms. Royal Leads the Polls

Article excerpt

Into the closed, gray, and overwhelmingly male world of French politics, a bombshell has dropped.

Topping the opinion polls for next year's presidential elections is a chic, 52-year-old mother of four who is bringing a whirlwind of fresh air to the ruling class in Paris and promising a new style of politics to voters tired of their scandal-ridden leaders.

Segolene Royal, bidding to be the Socialist party's presidential candidate, has stirred up almost as much opposition from fellow Socialist leaders as she has among the governing party. But she has also struck a chord with ordinary people that could resound all the way to the Elysee Palace.

Ms. Royal "is different," says Stephane Rozes, director of French polling group l'Institut CSA. "She doesn't seem trapped by doctrinal questions and people believe she addresses their problems."

To start with, she listens - a rare trait among French politicians whose lofty distance from everyday affairs is one reason why 76 percent of voters distrust them, according to a recent poll. Royal has made her website a forum for "internauts" to express their opinions on a range of issues, and she is incorporating the ideas she likes best in the online book she is publishing chapter by chapter to set out her platform.

"That's what modern politics is," she said in a recent radio interview. "It is citizens coming to grips with a vision of society, rolling up their sleeves, and trying to fulfill it."

Nor is she afraid to veer away from traditional Socialist policies. Last month, she struck out at the 35-hour workweek, the Socialist party's proudest achievement of the past decade. She also raised howls of criticism from her party colleagues by proposing that delinquent youths be sent to military boot camp, and that their parents be sent to parenting school.

"We need a return to the heavy hand," she declared, to "firmly reestablish a just order and long-lasting security." This is the sort of language used by the tough-talking Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the likely presidential candidate for the center-right UMP party.

But while Royal's rhetoric may make her the only leftist politician capable of beating Sarkozy, it has also earned her a reputation for being authoritarian - a tendency perhaps inherited from her military father. She seems to have turned that trait into an advantage, however, with her views on law and order. The Socialists lost the last elections largely because they were seen as soft on that front, and that issue has exploded onto the political scene again following the riots that shook Paris suburbs last fall.

Royal's foray into unfamiliar territory for a Socialist has paid off. Sixty-nine percent of the electorate supported the boot camp idea.

But this sort of heresy has raised the hackles of traditional party leaders, known as "elephants." (The elegant and slim Royal pointedly refers to herself as a "gazelle.") But it offers the prospect that Royal might modernize the French Socialist party a la Tony Blair and his reform of the British Labour Party.

The "Segolene effect" may already be taking hold: since March, her party's membership has grown 60 percent and attracted more women than usual. …