Segolene Royal would be first
woman president of France


By Alasdair Sandford  
BBC News correspondent in Paris 

French socialists probably breathed a sigh of relief Monday as the credits rolled on TF1 at the end of Segolene Royal's marathon appearance before a panel of voters.

For a start, at least there had been no more gaffes.

A series of unwise comments and confusion over policy had seen the socialist candidate fall well behind in the polls to her main rival, France's Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

Some of Tuesday morning's newspapers made encouraging reading.

"Royal makes up ground in the oral exam", was the headline in the left-wing daily Liberation.

The paper said everything about the program, from the participants to the decor, was to her advantage and she played her part to perfection.

Cheshire cat grin

It praised Segolene Royal for the way she swept away questions about her competence and legitimacy.

She said she was ready to become France's first woman president, reminding viewers that she had worked for Francois Mitterand for seven years, and had served as a minister three times.

The signs are that the centre ground is where she needs to take the battle in the coming weeks 

The front-page splash in the tabloid France Soir - "La Belle Humaine" - was equally reassuring.

But the paper said that although she wanted to show her compassionate side, Ms Royal often appeared tense.

Its editorial hinted that the candidate came across as somewhat superficial. Sarcastically, it described how she was ready to spend freely to employ the jobless and house the homeless.

Viewers would have switched off as the show went on, it predicted.

By the end, the only thing left in the studio was "her smile, floating obstinately in the air", like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland.

Monday night provided a chance for Segolene Royal to demonstrate that her program was, in the words of her campaign spokesman, "coherent and efficient".

She acknowledged that it would take five years to achieve her aim of raising the monthly minimum wage to 1500 euros (£1011). She assured those on higher pay that their salaries would rise too.

Damaging obsession

Ms Royal repeated that financing her program, which it has been estimated could cost 35 billion euros (£23b), would be achieved through increased economic growth.

But at least one small businessman on the TV panel was not convinced that her figures stood up.

A consultant in Paris who watched the program said she still did not understand what tools would be put in place to achieve the necessary growth.

The economic program of both Ms Royal and Mr Sarkozy have come under intense scrutiny.

Good housekeeping has become the order of the day as many ask how expensive promises will be paid for.

But several economists have now become exasperated with what they say is a damaging obsession with figures.

One says that the experts' calculations do not correspond to reality and distort political debate.

 The arguments over finance, however, look set to continue and could determine Ms Royal's fate.

Her program of "100 proposals" has been seen as a bid to woo voters on the left.

But the signs are that the centre ground is where she needs to take the battle in the coming weeks.

No margin for error

Francois Bayrou, the candidate from the centrist party the UDF, has been consistently rising in the polls.

One new survey puts his level of support in the first round of the election at 16%, only seven points behind Segolene Royal.

He in turn has been actively seducing the same left-wing voters, hinting that if elected president, he might appoint a socialist prime minister.

 Monday's program was billed as make or break for the candidate who wants to become France's first woman president.

Her supporters will be anxiously awaiting the next opinion polls.

The political analyst Dominique Moisi believes that it may already be too late for Ms Royal, unless Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign comes unstuck of its own accord.

"She was always weak on substance," he says. "Now the problem of gravitas, of competence, seems to be haunting her — and lack of confidence breeds hesitation, mistakes, gaffes."

 At times recently it has seemed that she could not go anywhere or say anything without uttering some unfortunate faux pas.

Even when she did not slip up herself, someone from her entourage was ready to do it for her.

Segolene Royal's priority as she revamps her team this week will be to unite her camp and avoid any further blunders.

There is no more margin for error.