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Is France headed for a Royal leader?

By Alison Daniels for CNN
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Could the glamorous and feisty Segolene Royal be on her way to becoming France's first female president?

On Thursday 53-year-old Royal comprehensively defeated two political heavyweights -- former finance minister, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and former prime minister, Laurent Fabius -- to become the the Socialist Party's candidate for the 2007 presidential race.

Her election comes at a testing time for the Socialists. While left-wing ideals underpin much of French life, such as the 35-hour working week and a strike-tolerant culture, the party itself has not held the presidency since Francois Mitterrand's departure 12 years ago.

Royal's campaign for the party nomination was a rocky ride, amid questions over her socialist credentials and -- in the world of macho French politics -- the very suitability of a woman to run for president.

Her gender -- and her relative political inexperience -- have made her the subject of more domestic and international media attention than is normally devoted to a French opposition party nomination.

Despite the controversy, however, and character attacks by male rivals, her election represents an acknolwedgement by the party that she offers its best chance of defeating the right's most likely candidate in next year's presedential vote, interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy

So who is she?

Thanks to her photogenic appearance, the world knows quite a lot about Segolene Royal. Everyone from Time magazine to hip web news service Ohmynews, have been running profiles in excited anticipation of a Madame La Presidente.

Royal is one of eight children and was born in Senegal when it was still a French colony. Her father served there as an army colonel.

She has a degree in economics and is a graduate of the Grandes Ecoles -- which has produced many of France's most distinguished politicians, past and present.

She joined the Socialist party in the 1970's. She is a former environment and family minister. And since 2004 she has been regional premier of Poitou-Charentes, the first woman elected to run one of France's 22 regions.

She has juggled her career with bringing up four children, now aged between 22 and 14, and to add a further interesting twist, her long term partner is Socialist Party secretary Francois Hollande.

For those more interested in personal gossip, Le Parisien has obliged by publishing details of her brother's alleged career as a secret agent. And a recent biography delved into details of her strict upbringing and her fraught relationship with her authoritarian father.

Her politics

Royal has been accused of being a political lightweight, who lacks national political experiences and espouses vague populist policies.

Certainly she has offered little detail on weighty topics such as solutions to France's high unemployment rate. She is basically a pragmatist and her main strength has been to campaign on issues that affect real people -- education, the environment and family policy.

In her own words, Royal is real socialist and not a Tony Blair style reformer. But she has shocked some Socialists with her tough stance on crime -- she suggests young offenders should be sent to boot camps. She has also questioned the sacrosanct 35-hour working week -- one of the former left-wing Jospin government's biggest legacies.

Last week she ran into trouble with France's powerful teachers after a video emerged on web in which she said they should work longer hours. Teachers make up some 20 percent of the Socialist's 220,000 members. Royal suggested that teachers should spend 35 hours a week in schools rather than the current 17 hours.

CNN's senior European correspondent, Jim Bitterman says she is a firm believer in bringing everyone into the political process. "She talks frequently of the problems the family and she is open to new ideas. One of her abilities is to be plain spoken and present an image of someone who is touch with the people."

"She is not one of the so-called 'elephants' of the French political scene."

Her image

While French politicians express horror at the personality led circus that is U.S. election campaigning, there is no doubt that the days of French media reverence and restraint towards politicians are waning.

Most famously, gossip magazines Closer and VSD defied strict French privacy laws this summer by publishing paparazzi photos of Royal in a bikini on the beach. There have also been a steady stream of pictures of her en famille doing ordinary things like eating breakfast.

Royal has played well in the international press. Political commentator James Traub, writing in The New York Times, compared her to Audrey Hepburn, while saying that she had the people skills of Bill Clinton and the political skills of Hillary.

The German newspaper Der Speilgel says Royal, "embodies the hope of renewal and a long overdue generational change -- and that she comes across as young, fresh and unused. She promises a break with the past -- among the French on both the left and the right. "

In fact such is her celebrity that the Queen of Pop, Madonna has weighed into the campaign, telling Paris Match that Royal has "class" .

On her own image, she is quoted in Time magazine as saying: "Why should one have to be sad, ugly and boring to go into politics these days?"

CNN's senior European correspondent, Jim Bitterman says; "She believes that France is definitely ready for a woman president and that she can bring a new dynamic to French politics.

What she's got going for her is that she is a new face and a force for change. Critics have questioned her ability to handle international affairs and facing off Sarkozy, but she can stand her ground."

What her rivals say

When Royal first declared her intention to run for the nomination her rival Fabius said: "Who will look after the children?"

Strauss-Khan was quick to seize on her attack on teachers: "To make believe that in our country teachers aren't really full time workers is not very serious."

Sarkozy, on the other hand, has been playing it safe, confining his comments to describing Royale as, "a woman of quality".

Is Segolene Royal the future of France?




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