PARIS — Segolene Royal has surged to the front of the pack of Socialists who aim to succeed Jacques Chirac as president of France. Nobody would have bet a single euro on such a prospect a few months ago.

Until recently, Royal — who now is merely the head of one France’s 22 regional governments — was best known as the nonmarried partner of Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party leader.

Yet, according to the polls, she is the only left-leaning candidate who looks able to defeat Nicolas Sarkozy, the current interior minister and odds-on favorite to be the center-right’s standard bearer in the presidential election next May.

How did Royal rise so far and so fast? One reason is that she is the only fresh face among those Socialists vying for the party nomination. Laurent Fabius, Martine Aubry, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Jack Lang and even Hollande are all former senior ministers who neutralized each other, while Lionel Jospin, the former prime minister, decided to put an end to his political career after his defeat in 2002. Each of them has strengths and weaknesses, but none seems able to challenge Sarkozy. Indeed, confronted with her lead, both Jospin and Hollande have dropped out of the race.

So there was a vacuum to fill, accompanied by a strong desire among the party faithful for revival. Royal’s chief virtue is that she has not taken part in the numerous internal battles that infuriate socialist militants and voters, and her lack of direct association with the party’s leadership has enabled her to avoid blame for its mistakes. That is why, far from being a disadvantage, her peripheral position is one of her main assets.

She has slim and politically minor ministerial experience — environment minister in 1992-1993, deputy minister for secondary education in 1997-2000 and minister for family affairs in 2000-2002 — and has drawn attention mainly for her work on subjects related to daily problems, such as kids’ TV programs and mistreatment in schools. While other politicians do not regard these matters as politically important, they mean a lot to most ordinary citizens. That is why people tend to view her as a sincere politician, rather than one concerned only about personal ambition.

On security issues and education, Royal differs from the classical left, being something of a hardliner. This, too, is an advantage in a country where security is the top priority for most people nowadays. A mother of four children who proclaims to believe in traditional family values, she is attractive to rightwing voters, while her nonmatrimonial relationship with Hollande makes her seem a quintessentially modern woman.

Moreover, being a woman is a great asset. When disturbed by a question, she usually replies, “Would you have asked the same question to a man?”

Ever since Laurent Fabius took a hit in the polls when he mocked her candidacy by asking, “Who will mind the children?,” her opponents have feared appearing misogynous when attacking her. When they do criticize her, she immediately assumes the pose of innocent victim, unfairly bashed by schoolboy bullies.

As a political tactician, she has also been innovative, organizing her campaign on the Internet with a plan to write her program from the responses of users. Her motto, “My program is yours,” could prove popular with citizens who, as in many other democracies, do not trust their political elite.

Even though, like the majority of France’s political class, she was educated at Ecole Nationale d’Administration, she spurns the language and habits of this elite factory. Last but not least, she is attractive. Photos of her in a swimming suit, taken by paparazzi during the summer, triggered much discussion across France.

But the game is not over. The Socialists will decide Nov. 17 who will be their candidate. Trailing her in opinion polls, the other contenders cite her lack of credibility on economic policy and international relations.

No one knows her opinion on the Middle East, terrorism, nuclear deterrence and international security. During the recent Lebanon war, she called for former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s intervention — an insufficient answer for many people.

Royal’s lack of a program has been her strength, but it could yet be her undoing. Eventually, she will be obliged to abandon her studied ambiguity, and she will probably pay a price for doing so. Few voters will support someone whose political program is based only on education and defense of the family. Some Socialists fear that, once nominated, she would not be able to confront Sarkozy in direct debates.

Moreover, opinion polls in France are fickle omens. Since 1981, no poll favorite has won the presidency.

According to the polls, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, not Francois Mitterrand, should have been elected in 1981. In 1988, just months before the election, Raymond Barre (a former prime minister) was the archfavorite, but did not even qualify for the second-round runoff. A few weeks before the 1995 election, Jacques Chirac looked so weak that a journalist bluntly asked him on live TV whether it would not be better for him to give up. Jospin was considered the only possible winner in 2002, before finishing third, behind Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen.

But Royal is confident in her fate. She is far from being a weak contender, and she is a fast learner with a strong campaign team. If she can strengthen her program on foreign policy, she may yet open a new chapter in French political history.

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