How do you compete with mom, flag, and apple pie?
That's the American version of the question facing France's conservatives, now that Ségolène Royal has emerged as the Socialist Party's candidate for president in 2007.
Ms. Royal, who trounced two male opponents in the Socialist primary last Thursday to become the first woman to represent a major party in a national campaign, embodies just about every iconic virtue that French culture holds dear.
She is a mother – of four. She is a graduate of the École Nationale d'Administration, the exclusive academy that has forged France's government elite for the past half-century. She is the daughter and granddaughter of career military men. She was raised in a strict Catholic home.
She is also ladylike, attractive, and – to top it all off – fond of dressing all in white.
"The image is of purity, almost religious, like Joan of Arc," says Marc Abélès, a social anthropologist in Paris who has studied the rituals of French politics for years. "This is a formidable image to present to voters, especially to those in the center-right."
That appeal to the center-right could be the key to victory for Royal, whose chief opponent in the April 22 presidential election is likely to be Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the tenacious leader of the main right-wing party Union for the Progressive Movement (UMP).
But with opinion polls consistently showing "Sego" and "Sarko" running neck and neck, the challenge for both candidates will be to find ways of attracting traditionally fickle voters on the far ends of the political spectrum without offending wavering centrists.
Already, both Royal and Sarkozy present themselves as crusading agents of change, order, and decentralization. They have expressed similarly tough views on how to address core concerns like crime and juvenile delinquency.
Royal has even flirted with free-market ideas and expressed admiration for Britain's Tony Blair, positioning herself – ironically – closer to Sarkozy than to the ideological Old Guard of the Socialist Party, if only slightly.
One of the tasks facing Royal and Sarkozy in the five months of campaigning to come will be to differentiate their views and proposals. Until the contrasts become clearer, image could count for a lot.
Sarkozy's scrappy law-and-order reputation has developed in the public eye for many years and can't be changed much, while Ms. Royal still has a chance to refine her profile, according to Mr. Abélès.
"Ségolène Royal, with her religious family background and all, may incarnate the values of purity and that will reassure some on the right," he said. "But she can't go too far with that or she will turn off the secular middle class, which is also an important voting group."
Both candidates face significant dissension in their own ranks and party loyalty is far from absolute in any case. In presidential elections, voters also have a cantankerous habit of choosing fringe candidates in the first round, with sometimes surprising results.
In 2002, for example, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the extreme right-wing National Front, knocked out the Socialist candidate in the first stage of presidential voting. He went on to win nearly 18 percent of the national vote in the second round. Mr. Le Pen is running again, in his fifth try, and his populist anti-immigrant stance could well drain votes from either Sarkozy or Royal next spring.
While Sarkozy's UMP party won't officially make its nomination until January, he appears to have no plausible challengers so long as his fellow UMP party member President Jacques Chirac, who will turn 76 at the end of this month, does not seek a third five-year term.
Running against Royal, however, will pose some novel challenges.
In terms of background, Sarkozy could not present a more different profile. His father was an immigrant from Hungary, his grandfather on his mother's side was Jewish, and his marriage – his second – has undergone highly public turmoil over the past two years. He attended a prestigious university but didn't graduate, rose through the party ranks as a contentious outsider, and has been accused by the French left and right of being pro-American.
Sarkozy has said he looks forward to debating Royal, saying he would not pull any punches because she is a woman and sardonically inviting her to "tell us how she is different from the Socialist Party."
Other politicians have attacked more directly. "She's going to have to explain what she stands for and not just simply cut and paste from opinion polls," said Defense Minister Michele Alliott-Marie, the highest-ranking woman in the government, in an interview published Sunday.
Coming from another woman, the charge that Royal is a lightweight may not strike anyone as sexist, according to political analysts. But many people, including Ms. Alliott-Marie herself, warn that French voters are going to be on the lookout for hints of political machismo and chauvinism in the campaign.
"I have no doubt that she's going to be portrayed as someone weak or overly emotional or too ambitious," says Josianne Coutant, a Paris bank executive who described herself as "rather pro-left but undecided" in the presidential race. "It's going to backfire because I think a lot of people will vote for Ségolène just to finally have a woman in charge."
Royal has a delicate balance to maintain.
"French voters expect her to be seductive because that's more expected of women [here] than it might be in other countries," adds Abélès, the anthropologist. "But on the other hand, they also expect women to be manipulative."