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Local vote offers hope of comeback for France's Royal

A noisy crowd of student nurses greets Segolene Royal at a housing estate in Rochefort, a coastal town of 26,000 inhabitants in western France.

world Updated: Mar 11, 2010 08:47 IST

A noisy crowd of student nurses greets Segolene Royal at a housing estate in Rochefort, a coastal town of 26,000 inhabitants in western France.

Smiling and shaking hands, she hears their complaints: fears for their college accommodation amid restructuring of local hospitals. Then she tells them sternly to stop drumming while she addresses her supporters.

Defeated by Nicolas Sarkozy in France's 2007 presidential race, Royal lost ground within her own party and has slipped out of the national spotlight.

Now, she is pursuing a staunchly local agenda as president of the Atlantic coastal region of Poitou-Charentes.

She will seek re-election in two rounds of voting on March 14 and 21 -- a chance for the French to choose who runs key local budgets but also to express their view of Sarkozy, who is slipping in the opinion polls.

The stakes in this month's vote go beyond the local trains, schools and training budgets controlled by the regional councils -- especially for Royal, whom many suspect of planning a second run for French president in 2012.

"It is a very important election because there is real power here to protect the local communities," Royal told AFP in Rochefort after signing an autograph for a fan.

"It is a vote to punish the national leadership which is doing a lot of damage, but also a vote of hope to create a new model of society," she added, before returning to face the nurses.

Promising on the spot that their college lodgings will be protected, she draws a cheer and sends them away with smiling faces.

"She does a good job -- she's a good regional president. But she's still down in popularity nationally," said Andre Bonnin, a local councillor, sipping wine after Royal's address.

"She hasn't had the breakthrough that she wanted in the party."

Keeping it local, Royal has instead entrenched her popularity in the region that brought her national fame when she drove out the right-wing candidate in 2004, on a night when Socialists seized 20 of mainland France's 22 regions.

She knows that Sunday's vote -- which she is tipped to win -- is about more than the local business subsidies, green energy projects and welfare-to-work programs that have made her a popular regional leader.

"She's hoping for a very strong victory in Poitou-Charentes which would allow her to bounce back nationally in the presidential campaign," said Gerard Grunberg, an expert on the Socialist Party at the elite college Sciences Po.

"This time it is very important because her situation has deteriorated a lot, not only in the party but nationally."

Grunberg cited polls that rank national party leader Martine Aubry and the French head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, higher than Royal as prospective Socialist presidential challengers.

But he added: "If there are some losses or disappointments (for the Socialists) and Segolene Royal has a very strong victory compared to other regions, that could put her back in the saddle."

In recent weeks Royal has curtailed her direct campaign in order to visit coastal villages stricken by
a deadly storm last month, and secure millions of euros of emergency funds for them.

On the Ile Madame, a wind-swept island west of Rochefort, Jean-Pierre Mineau grinds around in a mechanical digger at the oyster farm that he runs with his wife.

Last month a tidal flood more than a metre deep swept through it, polluting his oyster basins, washing away his shoals of sea bass and flooding his shop and restaurant.

"The storm has helped her for the election. It was a chance she couldn't miss," he says of Royal. But he is glad that the region has promised to help pay for the damage and praises Royal's pro-environmental stance.

"She wants to make our region an example to others", he says. "There is state support for organic farmers and Segolene Royal jumps on board, applying that approach in her region. It's good news for us."

Focussing hard on these regional measures, Royal refuses to discuss the prospect of a second presidential bid, saying only that she wants "the highest score possible" in this month's votes.

"I won't predict the score," she said. "I'm not going to interpret the votes before they happen."