Savoring Victory, Royal Readies for '07 ; France's First Female Major-Party Presidential Candidate Gets Set to Take on Tough-Talking Nicolas Sarkozy

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How do you compete with mom, flag, and apple pie?

That's the American version of the question facing France's conservatives, now that Segolene Royal has emerged as the Socialist Party's candidate for president in 2007.

Ms. Royal, who trounced two male opponents in the Socialist primary last Thursday to become the first woman to represent a major party in a national campaign, embodies just about every iconic virtue that French culture holds dear.

She is a mother - of four. She is a graduate of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, the exclusive academy that has forged France's government elite for the past half-century. She is the daughter and granddaughter of career military men. She was raised in a strict Catholic home.

She is also ladylike, attractive, and - to top it all off - fond of dressing all in white.

"The image is of purity, almost religious, like Joan of Arc," says Marc Abeles, a social anthropologist in Paris who has studied the rituals of French politics for years. "This is a formidable image to present to voters, especially to those in the center- right."

That appeal to the center-right could be the key to victory for Royal, whose chief opponent in the April 22 presidential election is likely to be Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the tenacious leader of the main right-wing party Union for the Progressive Movement (UMP).

But with opinion polls consistently showing "Sego" and "Sarko" running neck and neck, the challenge for both candidates will be to find ways of attracting traditionally fickle voters on the far ends of the political spectrum without offending wavering centrists.

Already, both Royal and Sarkozy present themselves as crusading agents of change, order, and decentralization. They have expressed similarly tough views on how to address core concerns like crime and juvenile delinquency.

Royal has even flirted with free-market ideas and expressed admiration for Britain's Tony Blair, positioning herself - ironically - closer to Sarkozy than to the ideological Old Guard of the Socialist Party, if only slightly.

One of the tasks facing Royal and Sarkozy in the five months of campaigning to come will be to differentiate their views and proposals. Until the contrasts become clearer, image could count for a lot.

Sarkozy's scrappy law-and-order reputation has developed in the public eye for many years and can't be changed much, while Ms. Royal still has a chance to refine her profile, according to Mr. Abeles.

"Segolene Royal, with her religious family background and all, may incarnate the values of purity and that will reassure some on the right," he said. "But she can't go too far with that or she will turn off the secular middle class, which is also an important voting group."

Both candidates face significant dissension in their own ranks and party loyalty is far from absolute in any case. …