Royal wins race to fight for presidency
The prospect of France's first female president took a leap forward last night after the Socialist party declared Ségolène Royal the winner of its candidate race. As Miss Royal dined last night in her family home in Melle, western France, with close supporters and top staff, the first local results showed an unexpectedly handsome win.
Her own département of Deux Sevres gave her 84 per cent of the vote, while neighbouring départements of Charentes and Dienne gave her 72 per cent and 68 per cent respectively.
By 11.30pm local time, less than two hours after voting had ended, Miss Royal went to her local village hall to declare victory, to shouts of "President Ségolène" from supporters.
"I am weighing the scale of the honour that has been bestowed upon me by all the party members", she said, and promised the French people that "we are going to build something extraordinary together. The people have mobilised. I will not let them down".
She declared "a moment of happiness" but "now we have six months of work ahead of us" as she battled to unite the Socialist party.
Partial results showed support for Miss Royal stood at 64 per cent, with her two rivals, the former finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the former prime minister Laurent Fabius, tied on around 18 per cent.
Stephane Le Foll, a party spokesman, said Miss Royal had secured an absolute majority.
"The results show rather clearly that there will only be one round of voting and that we can say that Ségolène Royal will be the Socialist party candidate," he said.
Miss Royal will challenge for the presidency in April.
Earlier, stylishly dressed in a cream silk suit, she called the vote "the first round, at last, of the presidential elections", and insisted she would await the results "with serenity".
The stakes could not have been higher for Miss Royal, whose good looks and broad smile belie her reputation as an ambitious high-achiever, raised in the French colonies in an army family.
Miss Royal's supporters had made no secret of their longing for a quick end to the primary, fearing that her front-runner status was being eroded by criticism from her opponents, and the strain of six separate candidates' debates, in which she was accused of proffering fine-sounding slogans instead of detailed policy positions.
Opinion polls throughout the seven-week primary campaign gave Miss Royal, a former aide to President Francois Mitterrand and a junior minister in two Socialist governments, a healthy, though declining, lead over her two rivals.
Miss Royal, who has four children by her partner, the Socialist party's leader, Francois Hollande, has been the MP for the area around Melle since 1988, winning the affection of local farmers and factory workers as she used her powerful connections in Paris to channel public funds to the region.
Melle, a town of just 4,500 people, is so loyal it has been dubbed "Segoland" by the French press. It is picture-book France. The local estate agent's window is filled with English-language advertisements for restored barns and stone farmhouses. Miss Royal's constituency office is a handsome house off the market square.
The town and surrounding regions bear the marks of 18 years of state-funded interventions by Miss Royal.
Locals talked of her work to alter the route of a motorway which threatened wetlands and of her efforts to secure protected origin status for a prized variety of goats cheese, the chabichou.
Yves Dedien, a deputy mayor, expressed pride at her record. "There is a political tradition in France that allows an MP with a national profile to obtain certain funds for their constituency," she said.
"But Ségolène did not stop there. Her work to get protected status for the chabichou was a question of hard work, not funding."
Since winning office two years ago as the head of the regional government of Poitou-Charentes, Miss Royal has maintained an intensely local focus, spending yesterday on such events as laying the foundation stone of a new high school, named the "Lycée Kyoto" after the treaty on carbon emissions.
Critics of Miss Royal have asked whether such works, in a tranquil if impoverished corner of rural France, can fit her for the task of running a nation whose grimmest urban housing estates are near no-go zones for the police, where cars are set on fire every night, and youth unemployment can reach 50 per cent.
Pierre Redien, a party activist, warned her critics not to underestimate her. "Those people in Paris don't know her well," he said.
"She's a fighter, she's got courage, and she can be very tough when needed. She knows what she wants and she gets it."
Ségolène Royal's most dangerous rival, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, an ex-finance minister ran as a moderate "Social Democrat". DSK, as he is known, has a tepid following among die-hard activists but saw his poll ratings steadily climb among the general public after each of the campaign's three televised debates, as viewers warmed to his authoritative, somewhat professorial, manner.
The same polls were brutal to Laurent Fabius, once one of France's youngest ever prime ministers. Mr Fabius ran as a hard-Left candidate, vowing to re-nationalise French energy companies and to impose fines on firms which send jobs overseas.