This month it was Italy, but this time next year it could well be France
looking at a cliffhanger election. The 2007 presidential election is
increasingly looking like a two-horse race, and a close one at that.
Yesterday’s Le Figaro gives front page treatment to a new opinion poll by
Sofres/Unilog that shows the Socialist Party’s Ségolène Royal and Nicolas
Sarkozy from the centre-right UMP as overwhelming front-runners to succeed
incumbent Jacques Chirac.

When those polled were offered Royal as the socialist candidate, she
attracted 34% of the predicted first-round vote; the most any other
socialist could manage was 23% for former prime minister Lionel Jospin.
Against Royal, Sarkozy scored 30%, way clear of his UMP rival Dominique
de Villepin on 6%. The only
other candidate to reach double figures was Jean-Marie Le Pen, of the far-right
National Front, with 10%. For the all-important second round run-off, the poll
predicts a virtual dead heat between Royal and Sarkozy, 51% to 49%.

The rise of Ségolène Royal in the public consciousness over the last few months
has been dramatic. A book published at the beginning of the year on the election
(Alain Duhamel, The Pretenders 2007), still prominently on sale at railway
stations, doesn’t even mention her among its 15 hopefuls. The prospect of a
female president, something France has never had, seems to have captured the
imagination of many people. And Royal, 52, is a polished performer with a solid
power base – she is chief minister of the Poitou-Charentes region, and her de facto
husband, François Hollande, is party secretary.

In what is still a very traditional left-wing party, Royal appears to be
most centrist of the candidates. Some of her positions, such as her opposition
to gay marriage and admiration for Tony Blair, have party activists gritting
their teeth. But she may nonetheless feel that if she can establish herself
the Socialist candidate then the left will ultimately rally to her because
have nowhere else to go. Yesterday’s poll showed that in the second round
would attract 82% of the votes of Olivier Besancenot (of the Revolutionary
Communist League) but also, and crucially, 44% of those of centrist leader
François Bayrou.

With a year to go, however, plenty could still happen. As Le Figaro points
out, Royal’s support is strongest among workers and the young, the very people
who are least likely to turn out to vote. And other players, prime minister
Villepin among them, should not be written off just yet.