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Last Updated: Monday, 29 January 2007, 16:24 GMT
Gaffes tarnish Royal's campaign
By Clive Myrie
BBC News, Paris

I was watching an American political discussion programme on television the other day, where seasoned pundits waxed lyrical about President Bush and his many problems with Iraq.

Segolene Royal
Segolene Royal has been turning heads for all the wrong reasons

When the conversation moved on to who they believed - outside America - would be making a big impact politically in 2007, three of the four pundits said: "Watch out for Segolene Royal!"

Pronunciation of her surname ranged from Royal as in Royal Queen to Roy-ale, as in what one might drink in an English pub.

Though they might not be able to get her name quite right, it's clear the Socialist Party candidate for the French presidency has turned many a head way beyond France's borders.

But is Segolene Royal (pronounced Roy-arl) turning heads closer to home? Yes, but - according to a new opinion poll - for all the wrong reasons.

Self-inflicted wounds

The poll published in the daily Le Parisien found 57% of respondents thought her rival for the Elysee Palace, Nicolas Sarkozy, was running a more solid campaign.

The gaffes do seem to be having an effect on public perceptions

He's also seen as a more innovative candidate with most people believing he has brought better, fresh ideas to the table.

A separate IFOP poll last week suggested 77% of people thought Mr Sarkozy had had a successful beginning to his run for the presidency, compared to 57% for Madame Royal.

Polls do suggest voters believe she is more in tune with the worries of ordinary people, but with less than three months to go before the election, why is the Socialist candidate faltering?

Segolene Royal's campaign has suffered a series of self-inflicted wounds.

In her quest to become France's first woman president, inevitably she has been anxious not to scare off millions of middle class voters.

The problem is her partner - and Socialist Party secretary - Francois Hollande is keen to curry favour with the party's restless left wing, promising to raise taxes.

The battle within the Royal household spun into public view when Madame Royal's spokesman called Monsieur Hollande a "liability... the only defect in her run for the presidency".

He was then suspended, giving the impression the Royal campaign was in disarray.

But most of her problems stem from a lack of experience on the world stage, say her critics.

Back in December when she met a Hezbollah MP on a visit to Lebanon she was unfazed when he attacked what he called modern-day "Nazism" in Israel and accused the Bush administration of "unlimited dementia".

Madame Royal even said she agreed with a lot of the things he said, "notably your analysis of the United States".

Ammunition

Now while there are some in France who would also agree with those comments, she provided more ammunition for rivals who claim she is no natural diplomat with too little experience of foreign affairs to lead France.

Nicolas Sarkozy
Rival Nicolas Sarkozy may have profited from Royal's mistakes
This view was reinforced last week when she appeared to call for independence for Canada's mainly French-speaking province of Quebec, provoking an unusually strong rebuke from Canada's prime minister.

A prankster then exacerbated the controversy by pretending he was the premier of Quebec and in a taped conversation said her comments about the province were "like us saying well Corsica, it should be independent".

Laughing Madame Royal replied that not all French people would be against that, but then quickly added: "Don't repeat that, it will create another incident... in France."

Sure enough her words did. The head of Corsica's assembly said even if the words were the result of a gag, they weren't funny, while rival Nicholas Sarkozy added: "For me, Corsica isn't a joke... it is the Republic."

The gaffes do seem to be having an effect on public perceptions of Madame Royal's run for office, namely that her campaign isn't disciplined enough and that policy is made on the hoof.

The gaffes are not mortal wounds, but if more mistakes and public relations disasters follow, the perception could well be that she isn't a serious candidate.

That would be the biggest gaffe of all.


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