Zapatero praises France's Royal in campaign rally

TOULOUSE, France (Reuters) - France’s Segolene Royal took the stage with Spain’s Prime Minister in a last major rally ahead of Sunday’s presidential poll, urging the French to vote for change.

French Socialist Party presidential candidate Segolene Royal (2nd L) reacts to applause with Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero at a political rally as she campaigns in Toulouse April 19, 2007. REUTERS/Jean-Philippe Arles

To the sound of thumping rock music and the applause of some 15,000 supporters, Royal and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero marched side by side into an exhibition hall in southern Toulouse on Thursday.

“Segolene knows how to serve Europe. Segolene is change. Segolene is the future,” Zapatero told a cheering crowd. “Someone like her can be president.”

French Socialists hope Zapatero’s praise will give a final push to Royal ahead of Sunday’s first election round.

Royal was nicknamed “Zapatera” in 2004 when she won a regional election on the home turf of the conservative French prime minister at the time, just weeks after Zapatero’s victory in the Spanish election.

Royal’s triumph in western Poitou-Charentes marked the start of her transformation from a largely unknown politician into the first woman with a serious chance to become French president.

“I like Zapatera, the symbol of victory,” Royal has said of her nickname in her recent book “Maintenant” (Now).

Twelve candidates are standing in Sunday’s poll, but only the two frontrunners move into a run-off vote on May 6. Recent surveys show Royal behind rightist Nicolas Sarkozy but ahead of centrist Francois Bayrou, who has edged closer in past weeks.

In an effort to strike a contrast with her two main rivals, Royal has played up her leftist credentials, attacking high banking fees and executive pay, and visiting striking workers and low-paid supermarket cashiers.

On Thursday, Royal promised to build a “fairer and stronger” France, in which all citizens would be equal.

“A France that does not discriminate against a job seeker because he does not have the right skin colour, the right name, the right address. This will be the fight,” she told cheering supporters, who waved balloons and flags and brandished photos of her.

“She’s the best candidate,” said pensioner Henri Blaquieres, 69, sporting two purple “Segolene” stickers on his trousers.

Socialist supporters hope Royal will erase the traumatic memory of the previous presidential poll in 2002, when far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen came second and forced the Socialist candidate out of the run-off race.

Many Socialists blamed that defeat on the fact that an array of left-wing candidates had split their vote, and Royal has urged left supporters to cast a “useful vote” this time round.

Zapatero added his voice, saying: “You must not wait for the second round, the left is not made for waiting. It is made to win fast as possible.”