Ségo tilts towards the right

Observations on the French elections

Her bubble was expected to burst the moment she declared she was standing for election as president of France. It did not. Her candidacy was expected to collapse as soon as she was obliged to debate with her heavyweight adversaries in public. It has not. Ségolène Royal is not only intact, she has turned the tables on expectations. It will now be a big surprise if she fails to win the Socialist Party's presidential nomination in a nationwide poll of its members on 16 November. The winner will carry the hopes of France's mainstream left in the election next April to replace President Jacques Chirac.

There has been little discernible policy method in the Royal progress. Ségo, as all France knows her, has simply endeavoured to maintain her serenity, avoid fatal mistakes and steer to the right of her party's belligerent left. Her campaign slogan is 'Ordre Juste, signifying her aim to address popular security fears in a socially responsible manner. You may catch the conservative ring; the "neo-puritan" label that opponents stick on her derives not from spite alone.

Inevitably, given her stance and the fact that the father of her three children, François Hollande, is the leader of her party, Royal, aged 53, is sometimes likened to the other half of another highly visible political couple, US Senator Hillary Clinton. If she hasn't yet swapped notes with Mrs Clinton on running for president, it is because she prefers to do so after her own nomination is in the bag. An early meeting with Mrs Clinton is on the Royal agenda. They have much in common, say her campaign aides, and a provisional rightward tack is doubtless part of it. In truth, Ségo more often seems new Labour in spirit, with a Blairist flair for catering to the popular press, and promptly following its lead when issues become so sensitive that she does not want to take a lead herself. Her populist assets end there. Despite her trademark serenity and a switch-on TV smile, she comes over a little stiff and lacks charm.

Avoiding mistakes has been touch and go for Ségo in past weeks. The danger comes from her lack of top-level political experience. Her current post as president of the Poitou-Charentes region on the Atlantic coast demands political nous but exposes her to taunts that she's a naive provincial (which, as a graduate of ENA, France's school for princes of the state, and as a former inside adviser to the wily French president François Mitterrand, she decidedly isn't). Still, her ingenuous habit of advancing Poitou-Charentes solutions as answers to the problems of the nation is one she has barely learnt to curb.

In a country where the gulf between the electorate and the political class has widened dangerously, where most voters are turned off by politics in general, a woman as a serious contender for the presidency attracts attention. To sustain the novelty, she is inclined to float ideas without weighing the blunder potential. A Royal law-and-order proposal to throw juvenile miscreants into the army misfired with the liberals she wants on her side. To restore public confidence in the political process, she now proposes "citizen juries" to oversee the labours of elected parliamentarians. Her two rivals for the Socialist nomination, the former premier Laurent Fabius and ex-finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, gratefully knock down this scheme as Robespierrist. Even so, by restating her original proposals in more judicious form Royal has somehow managed to hold her Socialist ground each time, satisfying supporters that she is a politician with stomach.

All 205,000 paid-up party members are called to vote next Thursday. Party soundings suggest they could well give the left's new darling a clear majority, saving her from a run-off against her nearest rival a week later. If so, France will have witnessed an astonishing political phenomenon: a woman coming from (almost) nowhere to take the left by (serene) storm. The big Socialist strongholds in the north and around Marseilles have fallen for her. Could she conclude the miracle by defeating Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative champion, in the spring? Opinion polls are unclear. But the overriding reason that the mainstream left's rank-and-file seems so taken with her is that they believe she can.

David Lawday's book "Napoleon's Master: a life of Prince Talleyrand" was published this autumn by Jonathan Cape (£20)

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