Ségo: can she yet win?

Observations on the French elections

The electoral odds stand against Ségolène Royal. Yet she has sailed over the first big hurdle in her pursuit of the French presidency and there remains but a single rival to beat. It's springtime in French politics, and who knows what further energies the sap will revive in a recharged electorate?

To be sure, her conservative UMP opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy, has strong momentum after coming out on top with an impressive score (31.2 per cent) in the first round of the presidential elections on 22 April, but Sarko's success at least clarifies Ségo's last-ditch task. Calmly, serenely, she must convince voters that her policies (a step to the left of Blairism) will boost France more surely than his (two steps to the right); and that the man she now faces in a run-off for president on 6 May represents a perilous risk.

This is a stiff challenge, but not insuperable. Certainly, the arithmetic doesn't look favourable for the Socialist madonna. Throw all her first-round votes (25.9 per cent) into a basket with those of the small, eliminated candidates on her left, and they total hardly more than 36 per cent. So where will the further 15 per cent she needs come from? Very few new votes will come from the usual pool of first-round abstainers and undecideds, because on 22 April the electorate voted with greater gusto than in any poll for president since 1965, when General de Gaulle created the modern presidency. It was as if the French rediscovered democracy; they queued to vote, buoyed by "new" faces and the prospect of radical change.

While Ségolène can take credit for snapping voters out of their indifference - she has campaigned purposefully to re-engage their interest - the 85 per cent turnout she helped generate ironically leaves her with scant reserves of possible additional support.

Nor can she count on help from supporters of an embittered Jean-Marie Le Pen on the extreme right, whose 10.4 per cent tally inspired his testy political exit line: "I have been wrong about the French."

Royal's hopes lie with the puffy centre - a force inflated by the UDF's François Bayrou (18.6 per cent), an ambitious moderate parading as an honest Pyrenean ploughman, also eliminated. Pollsters suggest Bayrou's big haul splits fairly evenly between Sarko and Ségo, with a small advantage to her. That could widen considerably if she meets the tasks confronting her in the intensive fortnight of campaigning leading up to 6 May.

Both camps are suing hard for the Bayrou vote, previously situated on the centre right but now swollen by centre-left adherents. The bait is to desist from obstructing him in building a significant new social-democratic party in the parliamentary elections that follow hard on the presidential poll. Ségolène has asked the elusive centrist to join her in a public debate, clearly hoping to show they can share the same house. Strange things have come to light in this fascinating contest: many more people loathe Sarko with a passion than love him, and the same goes for her. That explains why Bayrou might well have become president had he squeezed into one of the top two places in the first round.

It is easier, on the face of it, for Mme Royal to play up the "hate factor" that afflicts her rival than vice versa. The main reason why anti-Royalists positively dislike her, aside from her leftish stance, is that she lacks obvious warmth and can come across as bossy and arrogant. Royal is very far from the silly goose that the right-wing press in France and abroad, seizing on the odd malapropism, has sought to make her. She has remained serene throughout an arduous campaign, divorcing herself from Socialist doctrine - and, indeed, from her party's leadership - to present herself as a "free woman".

Sarkozy, by comparison, is an open target. There is a vehement and widespread Tout sauf Sarko! (anything but Sarko) spirit about, particularly among the young, which Bayrou for one has done nothing to discourage. In this reading, Sarkozy is a brute: a man liable to blow a fuse, master of neither himself nor his language. The forecast in tout sauf Sarko quarters is that if he becomes president, there'll be hell to pay in the form of big social disturbances of the kind at which France excels. Why? Because the young are against him and because he places business over human interests. This is mostly nonsense, but curiously it is a prediction shared by Sarko's strongest supporters, and to turn up the volume on it is more than Ségo's camp can resist. That Le Pen's demise results from a far-right rush to a beckoning Sarkozy only serves to substantiate the dangerous image.

So, Ségolène toasts her first-round success by rephrasing her economic policy, with a pledge to "move France ahead without brutalising our country". It may be the sort of assault that moves hearts in the single head-to-head debate between the two contenders on national television, set for 2 May. This is a showdown that Sarkozy - an easy, talented communicator despite the hearty dislike he arouses - must be favourite to win, and that the heroine of the left cannot afford to lose. It looks as though she will need not only to take the bulk of Bayrou's votes but also to steal some from Sarkozy himself.

Truly an uphill task, especially as female voters have already given Sarkozy a definite edge in their first-round favours. But there is electricity in the air and Socialist optimists who like to look back compare her quandary to that of their champion François Mitterrand in 1981, when his electoral sums added up poorly against Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. Mitterrand none the less took the presidency and held it for 14 years. "Politics isn't sums," insists an old favourite of his, Jack Lang, now a devoted Royalist. "In politics, two and two don't make four. They make five . . . or three."