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Independent: Record TV ratings for Ségolène but France is still unconvinced

France remains fascinated by Ségolène Royal. But it has yet to be convinced that she should become its first female president.

Royal, the struggling Socialist candidate, pulled in a record audience for her prime-time TV debate on Monday night. She gave a fluent, competent performance, scoring points for compassion, for marathon smiling and for grasp of the arcane details of the country's social welfare, education and health systems.

But reaction in the press, and on the street, suggested that she had failed to bridge a credibility gap that has been growing since mid-January. Her team and supporters insisted, however, that her brand of caring, retail politics - strong on social issues, weak on figures or over-arching vision - would eventually prevail in the 22 April-6 May elections.

One Socialist deputy, Jean-Marie Le Guen, said: "The fact that she pulverised the audience record is very encouraging. It shows how much the French are looking to her." Almost nine million people watched as Mme Royal fielded questions from a panel of 100 electors for more than two hours on Monday evening. Her principal rival, the Interior Minister and centre-right candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, attracted 8.2 million viewers when he appeared on the same programme two weeks ago.

The post-debate opinion polls, published later this week, will be crucial. If Mme Royal has failed to turn the tide, support for her might ebb rapidly to far-left candidates and to the advancing centrist candidate, François Bayrou. Already, in a poll published just before Monday's debate, Mme Royal's first-round score had fallen to 23 per cent and M. Bayrou - stuck at 5 per cent in January - had climbed to 16 per cent. Another poll suggested that, if M. Bayrou reached the two-candidate second round, he could defeat M. Sarkozy. This was immediately dismissed as a rogue poll by both right and left.

by Fran on Wed Feb 21st, 2007 at 12:07:18 AM EST
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