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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 April 2007, 08:32 GMT 09:32 UK
Critics round on Royal in home base
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Poitou-Charentes, France

This month's presidential election in France is turning into one of the most unpredictable races ever, with a large number of French voters still undecided as voting day looms.

Segolene Royal in Poitiers
Segolene Royal is using Poitiers as a testing ground
The right-wing UMP candidate Nicolas Sarkozy remains in the lead, with the Socialist candidate Segolene Royal a close second.

Employment, or rather the lack of it, is one of the main issues in this campaign.

Mr Sarkozy has promised to make the French "value" hard work again, criticising France for working fewer hours than any other European nation.

The Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal has pledged a higher minimum wage, along with a new form of youth job contract, to ensure that the young in France have a chance of entering the tough job market that all but the best-qualified feel excluded from.

However, supporters of Mr Sarkozy point to the region Ms Royal has run in western France since 2004 to claim that her policies have already failed there.

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In the past, Ms Royal has called Poitou-Charentes her "testing ground" for national policy, and has introduced thousands of so-called "emplois tremplins" or "springboard jobs" for young workers.

The opposition UMP in the region claims most of those are publicly funded jobs, in effect making yet more people employees of the French state.

'Non-existent' opportunities

Far from rushing to invest in the region, companies there are shedding workers in a phenomenon the French call "delocalisation", or out-sourcing jobs to cheaper workers in eastern Europe, India and China.

Workers at the Aubade underwear factory in Saint-Savin in Poitou-Charentes, lovingly stitching together the lacy bras that are much-beloved of well-dressed Parisiennes, have been among those affected by "delocalisation".

I just wish the new president could give us hope but I'm not convinced
Roselyne Thefaut, redundant factory worker

The firm's owners, the Swiss company Calida, decided to move much of their production to Tunisia, slashing costs and making more than 100 employees redundant. Just 140 remain at the Saint-Savin site.

As president of the region, Ms Royal promised to intervene - but ultimately failed to save the jobs.

Roselyne Thefaut, 56, was one of the skilled workers laid off in February, along with her daughter.

She does not blame Ms Royal for her failure to keep the jobs in Poitou-Charentes, but it does make her wonder if Ms Royal could do any better as president of the nation.

Roselyne is trying not to be bitter or pessimistic, but says her chances of finding another job in skilled manufacturing in the region are almost non-existent.

"It's been a very tough time for me," she says, looking across the parking lot to the factory where she spent 36 years of her working life. "It's really hard to be thrown on the scrap-heap with no real explanation.

"As for the election candidates, I'm a sceptic. I think it will be really hard to put France back on its feet, or to find someone who has the solutions. It's an industrial desert here, and at the local job centre, they have no jobs for us. I just wish the new president could give us hope but I'm not convinced."

Education

She thinks she may vote for Segolene Royal, but with little real belief that she can reinvigorate France, or bring back the manufacturing jobs that are disappearing abroad.

Julien Vialard
Julien Vialard led a 2006 protest against youth employment contracts
In nearby Poitiers, the regional capital, dozens of students are spending the afternoon basking in the April sunshine at the cafes on the main square.

Among them is Julien Vialard, one of the students who led the 2006 protests against the government's new youth job contract, the CPE, forcing the Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to back down.

Julien Vialard worries about getting a job after graduation, and whether education in France will remain free.

"It is a right, not a privilege, and we should not have to pay for it," he insists, referring to the overcrowded lecture halls, the result of the current funding crisis at many French universities, only one of which made it into an international list of the world's top 50 universities.

The 24-year-old is planning to vote Socialist, but not because of the party's presidential candidate. "I will support her because I am a Socialist and I believe in the party's manifesto," he says.

Your students have to work while at university to pay their way. We don't want to end up like you in Britain or America
Julien Vialard

"But the election should not be about personalities - it should be about policies, but all we seem to do in France is discuss the individuals."

It is clear that the students enjoying a leisurely beer at his table are not fans of Ms Royal, even though the majority say they will vote for her - mainly to keep out Mr Sarkozy, whom they both dislike and fear.

"Sarkozy is a populist right-winger. For me, Sarkozy is the same as Margaret Thatcher - he has the same manifesto, the same ideas, and he would destroy the France we know and love," says Mr Vialard.

"I believe in public service. And just look at your hospitals in England - they don't work any more, and nor do most of your public services. Your students have to work while at university to pay their way. We don't want to end up like you in Britain or America."

'The icon'

But Ms Royal's opponents in the region are campaigning hard for Mr Sarkozy.

In the nearby village of Saint Benoit, the local UMP mayor Dominique Clement says his experience of working with Ms Royal on the regional council has made it clear to him that she would not be a good leader for the nation.

"She may well be able to win this election. She looks like an icon - a very pretty woman, a very bright woman, and that appeals to some voters. But from my experience of her, she is not a fair or a nice woman.

"There are so many decisions in this region which have either been the wrong ones, or have simply not been taken," he says, talking of the economy, and the need to attract new jobs.

"Segolene Royal wants to have power but she doesn't know what to do with it once she gets it, and that is very dangerous. And I think that the French people are beginning to see that, and to realise the truth behind the icon."




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