Page last updated at 10:12 GMT, Friday, 17 November 2006

Profile: Segolene Royal

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris

Segolene Royal
Segolene Royal is partner of Socialist leader Francois Hollande

The UK had Margaret Thatcher, Germany has Angela Merkel as chancellor, and both Chile and Finland have elected female presidents in the last 12 months. So, could 2007 be the year that France votes in its first Madame la Presidente?

It looks like a distinct possibility, as Socialist politician and mother-of-four Segolene Royal - now her party's official presidential candidate - has been riding high in the opinion polls for months.

The 52-year-old regional premier of Poitou-Charentes soared in popularity after she came under sneering attack last year from male politicians from within her own party.

Yet, as if to prove the difficulties for any woman going for the top job in French politics, the French media has occasionally focused on such burning questions as whether or not she should have worn high heels on this or that foreign trip.

Double-edged compliment

So, is Ms Royal really a serious Socialist potential candidate for the presidency?

"Yes," she told me with a smile a few months ago, as we borrowed her partner's slightly larger office next door to hers at the French parliament to film an interview with her.

Segolene Royal is someone I've respected for a long time
French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy

"I do have the right political experience, and I don't see why a man can be ready to be a candidate and not a woman," she said.

Her partner - none other than Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party leader - was at that point also a possible choice for the presidential nomination.

He always said he didn't mind that Segolene was more popular, but when I asked her about standing against him she sidestepped the question.

"I won't stand against Francois Hollande, it's unthinkable," she laughed.

Even then, however, the ambitious Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy had clearly identified her as a serious contender.

Gunning for the presidency himself, he honoured her with a double-edged compliment.

"Segolene Royal is someone I've respected for a long time," he said in response to a journalist's question.

"Saying that has got me into trouble with some of my friends. She's a good candidate, and I find it odd that people question a woman's abilities when they wouldn't do the same for a male candidate.

"If I ever became a candidate for the presidency one day, I would be very happy to debate with her. From my point of view she's every bit as attractive a Socialist candidate as Henri Emmanuelli."

Cue laughter from the gathered media: the clear implication was that Mr Emmanuelli was nowhere near as photogenic as the attractive Ms Royal.

Giant leap

Other politicians have got into hot water for more overtly sexist remarks about her.

Most of the remarks were made by her own party colleagues - including MP Laurent Fabius, who ran against her for the Socialist nomination.

Chilean President Ricardo Lagos (L) shakes hands with French socialist Deputy Segolene Royal 09 January, 2006 at La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago.
Ms Royal was criticised for wearing high-heels in Chile

Last year, he very publicly asked who would look after Ms Royal and Mr Hollande's four children if she went for the presidency.

It was a remark which created uproar, and may have backfired by giving Ms Royal widespread sympathy.

But political experts point out that despite her long regional experience, Ms Royal is untested on the national stage.

In order to work out policies on a range of policy areas from the economy to foreign affairs, Ms Royal has set up her own think-tank, Desirs d'Avenir, whose name translates as Future Desires.

She is a confident and popular performer on TV, and the think-tank is designed to offer the intellectual weight some believe she lacks.

But she also has to deal with questions about her clothes.

Last January, one of the liveliest topics of debate on French TV was her high heels, and whether she should have worn them on a trip to visit the slums of Chile.

A reminder that in France, the Elysee Palace may be a small step for a man but it's still a giant leap for womankind.

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