French women question candidate's competence

Presidential contender Segolene Royal's prospects may be fading.

Published March 18, 2007

PARIS - Like many French women, 44-year-old Annie Gros has watched the campaign of Socialist Segolene Royal with the heady prospect of seeing a triumvirate of women lead three pivotal Western powers: Royal in France, Hillary Rodham Clinton in the United States and Angela Merkel in Germany.

Now, barely five weeks before the French presidential election, the voters who should be among Royal's strongest constituency - Gros and other French women tired of male dominance in every political and professional sphere in France - are among her toughest critics. Their disenchantment is helping drive Royal toward third place in opinion polls.

"When I started hearing about her a few months ago, she seemed to be different and new," said Gros, a Paris teacher, clutching a bag of groceries on her way to pick up her daughter from school. "In a few months she lost all her credibility. It's a shame, but I'd rather abstain than vote for her now. ... She's not a strong woman like Angela Merkel or Hillary Clinton."

Female critics often say Royal, 53, simply has not measured up to the standards of competence and leadership that are required of a president of France.

They say that she plays to her femininity but is not a feminist, and that she too frequently blames France's sexist attitudes for hobbling her campaign.

"It's not enough to say, 'I'm a woman, therefore everything will be different,' " said Christine Ockrent, one of the country's most prominent television journalists and author of a recent book about female politicians. "Women voters, especially elderly women voters ... want a secure, competent leader. Somehow, Segolene Royal has not convinced them."

A poll conducted in the past week by the Ipsos group showed that 28 percent of respondents who are likely to vote said they would choose Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the candidate for the ruling Union for a Popular Movement party, in the first round of voting on April 22. Royal has the support of 25 percent, and Frangois Bayrou, who is casting himself as an alternative, anti-establishment candidate, is favored by 24 percent.

Other polls place Royal and Bayrou even, with about 23 percent each.

Ipsos tracking surveys for 11 days in early March showed that Sarkozy polled on average about 8 points higher than Royal among women. On one day, the spread was 14 points.

Female voters "are more worried about financial issues and the future jobs of their children and the economic situation - and that's even more important to them than to men," said Ipsos head Pierre Giacometti, explaining why Sarkozy's support among women was stronger.

Women are also much more concerned than men about questions of Royal's competence, Giacometti said, which she fueled early in the campaign with a series of gaffes, particularly on foreign policy issues.

In a poll by the LH2 firm published this week in the newspaper Liberation, 50 percent of those surveyed said that Sarkozy was the most competent candidate, compared with 22 percent each for Royal and Bayrou.

In an interview published in the financial daily Les Echos on Thursday, Royal complained that France's sexist attitudes were hampering her campaign. It is difficult to "convince French people" to vote women into positions of political power, she said.

"People are always more demanding of women when they are in a high-profile position," said Elisabeth Guigou, a former justice minister and an adviser to Royal.

She said it was "very strange, but the question of competence never comes up for Mr. Sarkozy, who has committed much bigger mistakes than Segolene."

Royal is a member of the National Assembly who has spent most of her adult life in politics, including in Cabinet positions for environment, education and family issues. Now Royal, who has four children, is facing many of the same problems as women seeking presidencies and other powerful political positions around the world.

France ranks 22nd among European Union states for the percentage of women in its parliament - at just over 12 percent.

In a worldwide comparison, France is listed as 87th - below Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates, where the percentage of women in parliament is nearly double that of France, according to statistics compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union.