Support could sweep mother of four French presidency

AMID widespread disillusionment with the president, Jacques Chirac, and his embattled prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, over their failed attempt to impose a controversial youth employment law, the French media yesterday turned the spotlight on the politician many now consider their country's brightest hope for a better future - Ségolène Royal.

Four out of France's five influential weekly news magazines put the photogenic Socialist MP, former minister and mother of four on their covers yesterday, as the latest opinion poll showed she is the voters' most popular choice as her party's candidate for next year's presidential elections.

"Sgo-mania", as it has become known, continued last night, when Ms Royal was the main guest on France's most-watched news programme. This week also saw the publication of a book about her and her longstanding partner, Franois Hollande, the Socialist party leader.

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But is France ready for a Madame la prsidente? Well, it appears so. More than 90 per cent of French people say they would be happy to have a woman president, despite the country's notoriously macho political tradition.

"She is the perfect embodiment of the great French contradictions: there is about her a delicious perfume of right-wing conservatism within a progressive project," Paris Match gushed yesterday.

"The Royal Mystery" declared Le Point, promising to reveal the secrets of her 25-year relationship with Mr Hollande. Le Nouvel Observateur devoted ten pages to "her ideas, her strategy, her trump cards, her handicaps", while the popular VSD put a photomontage of her, rigged out in full presidential regalia, on its cover.

With Mr de Villepin seriously weakened by the crisis over his highly contested youth employment law, it looks increasingly likely that the 2007 pres-idential elections will be a battle between Sgo and Sarko - as Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister, is popularly known.

Ms Royal, a former Socialist minister for the family, environment and education and the current president of the Poitou-Charentes region, has become a media sensation in a matter of months.

Yesterday's poll, commissioned by the daily Le Parisien shows that 53 per cent of left-wing sympathisers want her to stand for the presidency, while, even on the Right, 45 per cent of Mr Chirac's conservative UMP party would like her to represent the opposition.

She continues to far outstrip her ambitious partner, Mr Hollande, who is languishing behind all the other potential Socialist candidates, with only 9 per cent of those surveyed saying they want him to stand as the party candidate next year.

The couple claim there is no domestic discord over the nomination - if both decide to run they will let party members decide on the best candidate.

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"I don't reproach her for being popular; that would be absurd," Mr Hollande said recently. Party insiders say he has told her he will support her if he believes she is best placed to win.

His feelings for her will not affect his decision, he reportedly said.

They may not be important - Ms Royal's other party rivals are also trailing far behind, with her closest challenger, the former prime minister Lionel Jospin, getting 21 per cent of favourable votes.

Despite enormous public popularity, observers say Ms Royal enjoys little support within the Socialist party itself - an angle examined by the weekly L'Express, which yesterday devoted a long piece entitled "Anything but Sgolne" about the various strategies employed by her male rivals to stop her mercurial ascension.

"At the moment, Sgolne Royal is like a speeding locomotive - lovely to look at but with no train behind it," the political commentator Alain Duhamel wrote in the left-wing daily Libration.

Born in Senegal, one of eight children of a strict army colonel, Ms Royal graduated from the cole National d'Administration, the training ground for France's political and business elite, where she met Mr Hollande.

She first came to public notice as a protg of the former president Franois Mitterrand, who made her environment minister in 1992. Ten years later, she became France's first female president of a region after storming the then prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin's fiefdom of Poitou-Charentes in western France.

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