Gaffes catch up with chardonnay socialist

By Catherine Field

PARIS - The image consultants are patting the last wayward strands of hair in place and the wordsmiths are sculpting their last soundbites, because tomorrow, things get real.

After a fierce three-way fight, voters for France's Socialist Party will decide their candidate in presidential elections that are now due less than six months away and will shape the country's future well into the next decade.

If the polls are right, France's biggest opposition party will field a woman for the April elections - Segolene Royal.

Surveys of the party faithful give Royal, 53, an overall majority, enough to avoid a second-round vote on November 23. Polls variously give her between 58 and 62 per cent, compared to 27-31 per cent for former finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn and 9-11 per cent for ex-premier Laurent Fabius.

But some observers believe a surprise is in store. For one thing, no one is really sure how an influx of tens of thousands of Socialist Party members, lured by a cut-price membership deal on the internet, will vote.

And another is that Strauss-Kahn and Fabius, wily political veterans, have gained ground in last-ditch campaign events, while Royal, who has only minor experience in government as a junior minister and as president of the Poitou-Charentes regional council, has performed a disastrous end game.

Fabius, 60, is staking a claim on the party's left wing, claiming to be the ideological inheritor of two-term president Francois Mitterrand. Strauss-Kahn, 57, has played the role of political heavyweight, realist and intellectual, pitching his tent on the centre ground.

Royal's political doctrine is vaguely defined, appealing more on style rather than substance as a fresh face and the allure of being France's first woman president.

Right up till the final stages of the campaign, "le feeling" of Royal rather than "la pensee" was a clear vote-catcher.

Her classically tailored suits, flouncy hair and soothing verbal balm seemed an uncontested winner against Fabius and Strauss-Kahn, who by comparison offered a grey, leaden diet of doctrinal porridge.

Royal even snared endorsements from such luminaries as Bernadette Chirac, the wife of President Jacques Chirac, who said, "She has a certain look" and from Madonna, who said, "She's got class".

But under the ruthless eye of live performances, fashion sense and a sunny smile have not been enough. Royal stumbled nervously at a party convention in Paris where she was barracked by leftwingers - the suspicion is that the heckling was organised by rivals - and at a live TV debate she performed catastrophically on defence and foreign affairs, the two big responsibilities of a president.

She called for blocking Iran from gaining civilian nuclear power - something that is against France's international treaty obligations, in contrast with its commitment to ban unlawful military nuclear proliferation - and suggested that instead of building a second aircraft carrier, France could share one with Britain.

This drew a stinging rebuke from Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie.

"Apart from damaging our country's image and status, she seems unaware that British aircraft carriers are unsuitable for our type of warplanes," said Alliot-Marie. "On top of that, does she really believe that when the British are on a mission somewhere, we could ask them to pull out because we need an aircraft carrier? Mrs Royal is confusing a European defence policy with a breakdown service."

Meanwhile, a video clip leaked on the internet last week shows another gaffe by Royal. At a meeting in the western town of Angers in January, she is filmed saying teachers in secondary schools should work 35 hours a week, as compared to 17 hours at present.

Royal's spokesman Gilles Savary confirmed the clip was genuine and described the leaking as "an underhand attack" ahead of the vote.

Although Royal's remarks are likely to find an echo among the general public, teachers comprise a large proportion of the party's 200,000 members and may well be angered by her remarks.

All this has led Strauss-Kahn's supporters to believe that if he can make it through to a runoff on November 23, he can squeeze through to victory.

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