Will France Miss the Chance for First Female President?

Segolene Royal ran poor campaign.

April 9, 2007 — -- As recently as a few months ago, it appeared that France was poised to make a historic choice for its next president.

But as the French presidential campaign officially kicks off today, it seems unlikely that France will elect its first female president in the May 6 election.

Earlier in the campaign, left-wing female candidate Ségolene Royal emerged as a potential winner in he presidential election and an alternative to right-wing candidate Nicolas Sarkozy.

But since December, Royal has steadily slid in the polls against Sarkozy.

In the latest poll published by French weekly Journal du Dimanche, Sarkozy was seen getting 29.5 percent of the likely vote. Royal had 22 percent, and center-right candidate François Bayrou was only three points behind.

When Royal, 54, became the official candidate for the left, many French seemed to be seduced by the idea of having a female president.

"She had many assets -- as a woman and as the opposition leader," said Dominique Moisi of France's International Institute.

But after a series of gaffes, Royal's support has eroded, and her historic election appears unlikely.

"She ruined her chances," Moisi said. "She did not do a good campaign."

A Series of Campaign Missteps

For starters, Royal voiced support for Quebec's independence from Canada, a move that prompted Canadian officials to ask her to quit interfering.

And in December, she publicly said that she had shared "many things" with Ali Ammar, a Shiite Lebanese member of the French parliament. The comments came after a conversation in which Ammar compared Israel's intervention in Lebanon with the Nazi occupation of France.

Royal has also been criticized for her lack of experience. Unlike Sarkozy, 52, who has served as France's interior minister and minister of the economy, Royal has been relegated to less significant ministries like education, environment and family.

Royal, who was elected by her own party in December and had just a few months to craft a program, has seen her domestic program dismissed as shallow compared with Sarkozy's.

Sarkozy announced his candidacy almost two years ago, giving him more time to polish his program on France's main issues: unemployment and immigration.

A Question of Policy or Gender?

Defenders insist that Royal has been more severely criticized because of her gender.

"Royal is the first serious female presidential candidate," said Annick Lepetit, a French member of parliament in charge of Royal's campaign. "She is trying to make a difference as a female politician."

But according to Moisi, gender is not the problem.

"France was ready for a female president -- but not for Royal," Moisi said.

While the current polls suggest Royal is not having much success, they also reveal that the battle is not over. Forty percent of the French people are still undecided, according to a poll published Sunday in the French daily Le Parisien.

"Everything is possible," Lepetit said. "We have 15 days to grab the victory."

The French indecision could still help Royal, but Paris-based political journalist Laurent Desbonnets warned that it could just as much favor extreme candidates.

"Let's not forget that during the previous elections, at this time of the year, no one predicted that far right candidate Le Pen would make it to the second round," Desbonnets said.

Jean-Marie Le Pen -- who said in 1987 that gas chambers were "just a detail in the history" -- contradicted all predictions and shocked many French when he finished second in the 2002 presidential runoff.

Today, there are fears that history might repeat itself.

Even at Royal's office, Lepetit admits that Le Pen, a candidate again this year, might have another strong showing.

"Le Pen, I don't see why he would score less than 16 [percent of the vote]," said Lepetit.

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