- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2006

PARIS — She is an unwed mother of four, and the elders in her own Socialist Party refuse to acknowledge she is anything other than just another pretty face.

Yet Segolene Royal is topping political polls in France a year before presidential elections, even as the ruling conservatives are mired in scandal.

“Who’s going to stop Segolene Royal?” asked the Journal du Dimanche newspaper last week in yet another front-page spread on the brown-haired, blue-eyed lawmaker.

Maybe nobody.

Voter surveys put the 52-year-old miles ahead of most of her Socialist and conservative rivals. A Journal du Dimanche poll found that half of France’s center-left Socialists think Miss Royal would be their party’s best hope to succeed retiring President Jacques Chirac next year.

The polls suggest that, despite entrenched sexual inequality in politics, in the work force and sometimes on the streets, the French may be ready to elect their first female leader.

“She gives the feeling she can renew political life,” said Emmanuel Riviere, a political analyst at the TNS-Sofres polling agency in Paris. “She’s appreciated by the young and the old, the highly educated and the working class. And she’s able to draw support outside traditional party lines.”

Still, Miss Royal remains a polarizing figure within her own party. Critics deem her an inexperienced, autocratic micromanager who has never held a top Cabinet job.

Miss Royal is not shy about defending her abilities or her toughness. “I will never flatter the voter by bending to the wind’s direction,” she said earlier this month, in response to criticism that she was a populist.

A tangled tale of dirty tricks and kickbacks is boosting Miss Royal’s stock these days. Known as the “Clearstream affair,” the scandal centers on charges that Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, a Chirac ally, began an unfounded corruption investigation against his top rival, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

Whatever the outcome of the still-developing scandal, polls show that the French are fed up with their government. One poll found that more than two-thirds disapprove of the performances of Mr. Chirac and Mr. de Villepin, but that 68 percent approve of Miss Royal.

Her willingness to run in the presidential election if selected by a November party vote has sparked dismissive remarks by her party’s mostly male old guard.

“Who will look after the children?” asked former Socialist Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, referring to Miss Royal’s four offspring, ages 14 to 22.

For Mariette Sineau, a specialist on women’s issues at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, such comments “show the discrepancy between a feminization of public opinion which is completely ready to have women invest more in politics — even at the highest levels — and the misogyny of a political class which is completely closed and composed primarily of men.”

Like almost half of French mothers, Miss Royal is unmarried. Adding spice to the political intrigue is that her long-term partner is Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande, who has his own presidential ambitions but is sometimes referred to as “Monsieur Royal.”

She also is good at crossing ideological lines. She spearheaded a fight against violence and sex on television when she was the minister of family and social affairs. Yet, she also cleared the way to distribute the “morning-after” contraceptive pill in France.

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