The 218,771 members of the French Socialist Party vote tonight to choose a candidate for next year’s presidential elections from Ségolène Royal, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Laurent Fabius. If none of them gets a majority, a second round will be held next week.

Royal is still unquestionably the front-runner. Among left-wing voters at large she has a commanding lead: one recent poll gave her 58% to 32% for Strauss-Kahn and 9% for Fabius. But it is thought that the margin among party members will be closer: a count of Socialist MPs revealed 59 for Royal against Fabius 58 and Strauss-Kahn 40.

In some ways, Royal is the Mark Latham of French politics. Her populist style tries to by-pass the old factional structures of her party, but much of the party apparatus has also rallied to her as the best hope for electoral success. (Helped no doubt by the fact that party secretary Francois Hollande is her de facto husband.)

Like Latham, she arouses suspicion for the apparently conservative nature of some of her policy initiatives, although today’s London Times calls her an “Old-style leftist on economic policy.”

Like Latham with his town meetings, Royal is an advocate of “participatory democracy”. As Jean-Louis Andreani pointed out recently in Le Monde, this risks feeding the public’s disillusionment with politicians. But since French Socialists have usually had the opposite fault, of unlimited faith in the political class, that might not be a bad thing.

In the last few days, Royal’s campaign has been unsettled by the circulation of a video, filmed at a meeting in January, in which she suggested that schoolteachers should be obliged to work a 35-hour week. The general public might find that unexceptionable, but in the Socialist Party, where teachers form a large and iconic component, it’s a “courageous” position to take.

An opinion poll published yesterday in Le Monde shows Royal still trailing the centre-right’s Nicolas Sarkozy, 34% to 30%, but the gap has narrowed slightly since the last poll, and the contest is still wide open.

Peter Fray

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