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France's star tries to revive her sparkle

After a slip in the polls, Segolene Royal offers a 'presidential pact' to her supporters on the left.

February 12, 2007|Geraldine Baum and Achrene Sicakyuz | Special to The Times

VILLEPINTE, FRANCE — Segolene Royal, who last year seemed destined to become the first female president of France, sought to renew her stalled campaign Sunday. With 10 weeks left before the first round of voting, Royal rolled out a "presidential pact" of 100 proposals, many of them aimed at wooing back her core supporters on the left.

After her opponents, and even some allies, branded her as having no substance, the Socialist Party candidate released her manifesto of reforms, including the creation of 500,000 subsidized jobs for young people and the streamlining of presidential ministries.

Many proposals involve spending millions more euros on already bountiful social programs, such as free medical care for children younger than 16, reduced class sizes, better unemployment benefits and interest-free government loans to graduates to start businesses. Royal did not detail Sunday how the country would pay for the new entitlements.

Royal has slipped in the polls over the last two weeks against her major opponent on the right, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Her supporters drifted to other candidates, experts say, after she blundered on trips abroad and refused to be specific about how she'd run the country.

Without naming Sarkozy, Royal portrayed herself at a rally last week as a victim of "a hard right, without principles, without virtue" that had her "vilified in seedy publications and on the cover of weekly magazines linked to the government."

But Sunday, the 53-year-old mother of four seemed to bask in the emotional outpouring of thousands of supporters, many giddy as they waved placards declaring themselves to be in the "Segosphere."

Royal managed both to get misty invoking her motherhood and to get a laugh with a slightly off-color joke mocking U.S. power. "Size," she said, "has nothing to do with principles."

"I feel today I can propose to you something more than a platform -- a pact of honor, a presidential pact for ... the most vulnerable and the strong," she said at the start of her almost two-hour speech. "I won't forget anyone, because if France wants to rise up it needs everyone."

For much of the last year, Royal has led a charmed candidacy based on image, truisms and occasional gaffes.

She radiates an optimism that is almost Reaganesque and a willingness, uncharacteristic among the French political elite, to listen to voters.

Her 100 proposals were said to be based on feedback from thousands of "consultations" she had over the last three months in meeting with average citizens and via the Internet.

She convinced at least one person Sunday that she had listened: After she described an idea for agricultural reform, Maxime Deriam, a 29-year-old medical researcher, blurted out, "Hey, that was my idea; I wrote to her on the Internet! I bet Sarkozy wouldn't have listened."

But Sarkozy has also been connecting with audiences in vast numbers. After his nomination in mid-January by the ruling center-right party, he launched an energetic campaign, vowing to modernize the social and economic system, and attempting to reshape his image from the nation's top cop to a man of compassion.

His strategy began to take hold this month just as Royal's began to falter, said Pierre Giacometti, a political analyst and pollster at the French firm Ipsos.

"If [Royal] is going to catch up with Sarkozy, one speech won't do it," Giacometti said last week. "She needs to show she is at the level to be presidential."

Of 934 likely voters polled last week by Ipsos about a head-to-head match between Sarkozy and Royal, he came in with 53% of the vote, and she had 47%.

But in the French system, front-runners don't go head-to-head at first.

In a round of voting April 22 there probably will be as many as a dozen names on the ballot (37 now say they are running), including a popular extremist on the right, a Communist and probably two Trotskyites. Pundits predict that only "Sego" and "Sarko," as they're called here, will survive for the May 6 runoff. But they acknowledge that nothing is for sure at this stage.

For a presidential campaign underway for over a year now, Sunday in France felt like Labor Day in America. Everyone was on the campaign trail -- even France's president of 12 years, Jacques Chirac, who has been refusing to take himself out of the race even though he's at 3% in the polls. Chirac, 74, and his wife, Bernadette, took a television audience on a Barbara Walters-style tour of the Elysee Palace -- and dropped hints that he wouldn't run again.

Meanwhile, front-runner Sarkozy was not about to cede the day to the lame duck president nor to telegenic Royal. Sarkozy staged his own event that drew 3,000 supporters to a site usually reserved for leftist gatherings.

"If I am elected," he said, "I will be a president for all the French, including for those who have not voted for me."

It is a crucial political moment for a country burdened by high unemployment, debilitating taxes and frustrated youths populating both university campuses and in immigrant slums. The 2007 race, as usual, pits left against right, but the French seem fed up with politics as usual. Many say they want a candidate who not only can solve the country's problems but heal its damaged ego.

"Do I want to live in a France that can compete globally and shakes off its old ways? Or a France where the way of life, what has always been, is more important than high taxes?" asked Veronique Lavique, a teacher. "For now I think a President Royal can help me find answers."

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Special correspondent Devorah Lauter contributed to this report.

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