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France's First Female Presidential Candidate Breaks Taboos

Socialist candidate Segolene Royal's refreshing break with tradition initially appealed to voters, but detractors on both the left and right have criticized her style and lack of substance.

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Royal's rallies have featured the flag, associated with the far right, not the Socialists

French socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal, who shot to political stardom thanks to a highly personal, grassroots style campaign, has lost some of her shine, but still sees herself as France's first woman to enter the Elysee Palace.

The 53-year-old former environment minister took the country by storm last year, emerging from almost nowhere to win her party's nomination over two established opponents and posing a serious challenge to the conservative frontrunner Nicolas Sarkozy of the ruling UMP party.

But since January her standing has been eroded by a series of foreign policy gaffes, dissent within her own camp and a less-than-triumphant election manifesto launch.

Socialist party insiders are fearful she could even be beaten in Sunday's first round of voting by the centrist candidate Francois Bayrou, who has consistently held third place in the polls in recent weeks.

A woman operating outside the system

Ségolène Royal mit Parteifreunden

Royal grassroots style and call for "citizen juries" reinforced her popular appeal

Royal's rise owed much to her image as a woman operating outside of the traditional party structure. Voters initially gave a warm response to a politician who seemed willing to break taboos -- calling for "boot camps" for young offenders and "citizen juries" to assess elected officials.

Her political background however is strictly conventional. After attending the elite Sciences Po and National Administration School (l'ENA), which have groomed generations of top leaders, she was cherry-picked by former socialist president Francois Mitterrand and spent six years as one of his advisors.

In 1988, she was elected to the National Assembly, and four years later, served for one year as environment minister.

Focus on social, education issues

In the socialist government of 1997 to 2002, she was junior minister for education, then later vice minister for family affairs. She has also tended to focus her campaign on social issues, rather than on economic or foreign policy matters.

In France, presidents have a strong mandate in foreign policy, and Royal has been struggling to erase the perception that she is a novice in this area. Asked whether Turkey should be allowed to join the European Union, she merely responded "my opinion is that of the French people." On another crucial issue, that of Iran's nuclear ambitions, Royal also appeared to fumble.

Political breakthrough as a "woman to watch"

Royal's breakthrough came in the regional elections of 2004 when she wrested control of the Poitou-Charentes region from then Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. After that she was marked by the media as a "woman to watch."

One of eight children of a military officer from Lorraine in northeast France, who was born in Senegal. Royal's former political rival and partner is Socialist leader Francois Hollande, with whom she has four children.

Ségolène Royal mit Partner Francois Hollande

Royal with partner Francois Hollande

Elegant and immaculately dressed, she was voted last year as the world's sixth sexiest woman in a French magazine after appearing on another cover in a bikini. She is also articulate, outspoken and believes profoundly in the mission to create a new contract between politicians and the public.

Detractors on the left and right

But detractor,s such as her former top campaign advisor Eric Besson, say she is an authoritarian with, "an ultra-personal conception of power."

Critics on the right say that the manifesto speech of February 11 was nakedly left-wing and stripped away any pretence of a Tony Blair-style "third way."

But in March she was accused of playing into the hands of the far-right after calling for her supporters to reclaim the national anthem and display the flag in state schools.

Royal's rallies have been wrapping up with loudspeakers blasting out "La Marseillaise," which is more often associated in French politics with Jean-Marie Le Pen's far-right, anti-immigration National Front party.

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