Royal said: "When I speak about boosting small pensions, this is part of a bigger project to make France a fairer place.

 

"I will be the president who will battle against youth unemployment."

 

Make or break

 

In a tacit admission that her campaign was unravelling, Royal announced plans at the weekend to overhaul the organisation of her elections team, saying there needed to be a top-to-bottom line of command.

 

"The team needs to be strengthened and better structured," said Royal, who is to announce the changes later this week.

 

"I will be the president who will battle against youth unemployment"

Segolene Royal,
Socialist presidential candidate

"We have to get away from self-management and restore hierarchy."

 

Monday evening's appearance as a guest on the prime-time television show "I Have a Question to Ask You" was a major test for Royal, who wants to become France's first woman president.

 

During the two-hour programme, 100 men and women from across the country had an opportunity to put questions to Royal on front-burner issues such as immigration, unemployment and race relations.

 

Jean-Louis Bianco, Royal's campaign manager, said the appearance would give the 53-year-old mother of four an opportunity to shine.

 

'She is direct'

 

"It's the type of programme that she can pull off," said Bianco in an interview to RTL radio.

 

Royal's plain speaking will benefit
her, according to supporters [AFP]
"She is direct; she understands people and she can speak plainly."

 

Bianco has dismissed the poor showing in the polls, saying that thousands of supporters were turning out at rallies to hear Royal and that this was "a reality that is not reflected in the polls".

 

About eight million viewers tuned in earlier this month to hear Sarkozy answer questions in one of the highest ratings for a political show in 15 years.

 

After starting off the New Year with a slight lead over Sarkozy, Royal has lost the edge to the current interior minister following a string of foreign-policy gaffes and squabbling within party ranks.

 

Royal suffered a major campaign setback when the party's economic adviser, Eric Besson, quit last week in a row over the cost of Royal's 100-point election.

 

Race wide open

 

However, a separate weekend poll showed that 79 per cent of voters say the race is still wide open and that "many things can happen before April 22" when the first round of voting takes place.

 

Royal, a former environment minister, won the Socialist Party nomination in November, after beating two other candidates.

 

Royal was an adviser to Francois Mitterrand, former president, and is seen as the party's best hope after the humiliating defeat of Socialist Lionel Jospin in the 2002 election.