- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 19, 2006

PARIS — Segolene Royal is the darling of French polls: She’s the left’s most popular presidential candidate and the politician most people would like to invite along on vacation. A men’s magazine even named her one of the sexiest women alive.

Miss Royal’s big problem is that colleagues in her Socialist Party can’t stop trashing her.

Commentators have come up with a name for the backlash against the 52-year-old politician’s popularity: “The anyone but Segolene phenomenon.” Now, other presidential hopefuls in the party are campaigning hard, anticipating that she will run out of steam.

Miss Royal, a former Cabinet minister and mother of four, has rankled other top Socialists with ideas that veer sharply away from the party line, like her tough talk on crime and her suggestion of military training for unruly teenagers.

Miss Royal’s unconventional ideas have posed a problem for her romantic partner and father of her children, Socialist Party boss Francois Hollande. A potential candidate himself, he has had to distance himself from some of her pronouncements.

Many Socialists — including some who will be rivals in a party primary in November — complain that Miss Royal is borrowing ideas from hard-line Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the right’s likely candidate in the spring 2007 election.

They also say Miss Royal is pandering to the masses instead of setting out a platform and sticking to it.

“Popularity is a deadly poison for our democracy,” griped Socialist former Agriculture Minister Jean Glavany to this past week’s Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper.

Former Premier Laurent Fabius invoked the names of two big polling agencies — Sofres and Ifop — to complain: “We can’t let Saint Sofres or Saint Ifop choose our candidate.”

With just months to go until Socialist voters pick a candidate, the party has little unity.

In Tuesday’s Le Monde newspaper, commentator Michel Noblecourt wrote:

“Against a backdrop of maneuvering and mini-ambushes, where each side has mixed mudslinging and attempts to throw the others off course, [Miss Royal’s] rivals are hoping for an effect of T.S.S. (Tout Sauf Segolene).” In English, that’s anyone but Segolene.

Some detractors of Miss Royal’s are even pushing for a comeback bid by former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who withdrew from politics in disgrace in 2002 after finishing behind far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of that presidential election. Mr. Jospin says he is willing to come back if the party needs him.

Other potential candidates are Laurent Fabius, a Socialist who was prime minister from July 1984 to March 1986, former Culture Minister Jack Lang and former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, as well as Mr. Hollande, Miss Royal’s partner and party chief.

While Miss Royal is viewed as dynamic and original, her partner is often seen as bland and professorial. On vacation last week in the Riviera, the power couple featured in gossip magazine VSD — she wore a turquoise bikini and sunbathed, while he read “The History of France for Dummies.”

Mr. Hollande and Miss Royal say they have no domestic discord over the nomination — if both decide to run, they will let party members decide on the best candidate. No date has been set for the primary in November.

Until this year, Miss Royal was rarely thought of as presidential material, though she has held several Cabinet jobs, including environment minister and family minister, and is president of the Poitou-Charentes region in western France.

Political polls have ranked her for months as the top Socialist candidate, and she comes out favorably in polls that have nothing to do with her competence.

An OpinionWay survey last month said she is the politician the French would most want to vacation with, putting her slightly ahead of Mr. Sarkozy, while the French edition of men’s magazine FHM ranked Miss Royal No. 6 on a list of the world’s sexiest women, ahead of Sharon Stone and Penelope Cruz.

Miss Royal’s rise has provoked sexist comments from other Socialists. Sen. Jean-Luc Melenchon said the election is “not a beauty contest.” Former Premier Fabius asked snidely: “But who’s going to watch the children?”

Arnauld Miguet, a lecturer at London School of Economics, says the nasty comments will be toned down once the Socialists pick a candidate. France’s center-left traditionally rallies around one candidate, unlike the center-right, which has sometimes had two.

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