Tuesday, January 30, 2007

PARIS — Not so long ago it seemed there was nothing French presidential candidate Segolene Royal could do wrong and no magazine cover she had not graced.

Now, less than three months before presidential elections, the 53-year-old Socialist lawmaker seems to be careening from one political blunder to another, losing points in polls that once suggested she could become France’s first female leader.

“I have never seen such a mediocre campaign,” popular French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy said in an interview published Sunday by Le Parisien newspaper. With “the best will in the world, it’s hard not to ask questions. What does she want? What is her plan?” he said.

A number of Miss Royal’s gaffes are linked to international issues, shoring up criticism she is a political lightweight whose most important jobs were as environment minister and later family minister during previous leftist governments.

During a visit to Lebanon late last year, Miss Royal initially said nothing when a Hamas lawmaker compared Israel’s one-time occupation of the country to that of the Nazis in France during World War II. She appalled human rights activists by praising China’s justice system during a visit to Beijing this month and was chastised by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper after appearing to back independence for Quebec during a prank telephone call with a French comedian.

“This could cost her a lot, because at the end she lacks presidential credibility,” said Francois Miquet-Marty, director of political studies at the LH2 polling agency in Paris. “What’s different about Segolene is that she’s not a candidate like the others. She’s a recent player on the presidential game. So she needs to convince voters that she has authority and credibility in the international arena.”

Miss Royal’s remarks have already cost her points. An LH2 poll published Monday found only 29 percent of those surveyed said they intended to vote for her in the first round of presidential elections in April, a three-point drop from a few months ago. Meanwhile, Miss Royal’s conservative rival, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, has finally moved ahead, with 31 percent of voter perference.

Separate surveys published recently also showed that the French consider Miss Royal’s campaign dogged by problems and that Mr. Sarkozy was a more “credible” and “solid” candidate.

Still, Mr. Miquet-Marty said, “these aren’t irreparable gaffes. A lot can change during a campaign, and today 61 percent of French say they could change their minds.”

Miss Royal’s foreign policy stumbles have been matched by some domestic ones. She sparred on tax matters with her long-term partner and Socialist party chief Francois Hollande and her spokesman was suspended for telling a television interviewer that Miss Royal’s “only flaw” was Mr. Hollande.

Miss Royal is generally striving for the high road, laughing off or otherwise dismissing the incidents. Returning from a campaign trip to the French Antilles over the weekend, she said she had “no worries.” But she and her party have taken a harder edge toward Mr. Sarkozy, contending the minister was involved in a purported attempt to smear former Greenpeace France head Bruno Rebelle, a member of her campaign.

The Interior Minister is clearly reaping political dividends from the Socialists’ woes. But the gaffes are also benefiting another presidential hopeful, Francois Bayrou, head of the centrist Union for French Democracy party, who scored a surprising 14 percent of voter preference in Monday’s LH2 poll.

Meanwhile, Miss Royal’s own centrist image that she sometimes compares to that of British Prime Minister Tony Blair appears to have cost her support among traditional leftist voters. Some of her proposals, including boot camp for young delinquents, similarly clash with her party’s stances.

“I won’t vote for Segolene Royal,” one teacher, Marie, told the leftist Liberation newspaper this week. “I don’t see myself in what she is and what she proposes.”

After basking for months in the spotlight, the recent slew of negative coverage is a sobering reminder of how quickly politicians fall. But some analysts suggest Miss Royal, who has taken pains to burnish her populist image on the Internet and on the campaign circuit, may paradoxically earn the approval of ordinary French voters by occasionally appearing ignorant.

“It’s the little naive provincial who multiplies her blunders with the Parisians but who also knows how to be patriotic and courageous, who has frank speech, ideas and good sense,” Liberation said in a recent editorial of Miss Royal, president of France’s western Poitou-Charentes region.

“It’s not certain, that this caricature displeases Royal,” the editorial said.

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