At an outdoor rally just days before the French are to cast their ballots for president, Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate, came with a special message.
I want to address myself to the women, Ms. Royal declared in the town of Achicourt in northern France on Sunday. I need the womens vote.
She called on women to write a new page in the history of France by making her the countrys first female president. The entire world is watching you, she told them.
While Ms. Royals plea is revolutionary, it could backfire. The wooing of female voters as women is alien to republican France, where all citizens are supposed to be treated as equals and where gender, race, ethnicity and religion are supposed to be ignored.
The move has been seen by some as an ill-advised, even desperate, ploy on the part of Ms. Royal, 53, to win votes in the first round of the election on Sunday by stressing gender over competence.
Its the wrong strategy, totally counterproductive, said Michele Fitoussi, one of Frances leading social commentators and a columnist at the French edition of Elle magazine. Women are going to vote for Ségolène because they believe shes most qualified to be president, not because shes a woman. Its an insult to our intelligence to ask us to do such a thing.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the front-runner and the conservative candidate, has taken the opposite approach. Asked at a conference organized by Elle this month whether women were important for him, he replied that he had no particular message for them.
Whats important is to speak to all citizens, he said, adding, A president of the republic is the man of the nation, not a man of a party, not a man of a sect.
In theory, the French have no problem with the idea of a woman as president. The polling institute IFOP reported as early as January 2006 that 94 percent of the French believed that a woman was qualified to be president, compared with 52 percent in 1972.
Certainly, the womens vote is crucial for the contest on Sunday and the runoff two weeks later: women represent 53 percent of the electorate.
Ms. Royal has campaigned on a classic Socialist economic platform of strong protections for workers while stressing traditional social and family values. In her appearance on Sunday, she told women they could make up for past injustices against women by voting for her.
Im told that for certain women, its too revolutionary to see the state and the nation personified by a woman, she said. But I say to them as well that it is time to put an end to centuries of injustice, of marginalization. It is time to put an end to prejudices that make no sense.
Ms. Royals feminist call for solidarity is somewhat at variance with the dominant message of her campaign: that she will be a nurturing, unthreatening mother-protector.
In a prepared radio and television address that has been aired since the start of the official campaign last week, Ms. Royal opened her remarks with the words: I am a woman, a mother of four children. I have my feet on the ground. Im a practical person. I am a free woman.
On Wednesday, she toured a supermarket in a working-class neighborhood of Paris, meeting with female cashiers and even helping a female customer with her strawberries. The female wage-earner is todays proletariat, she said, as she denounced businesses for cutting rather than creating jobs.
But even women who are inclined to be supportive of Ms. Royal express disappointment that her campaign has been disorganized and that she has not projected a stronger image of leadership and competence needed to govern France.
She had a great start -- a beautiful woman who promised change and who people could be proud of, said Nicole Bacharan, a political analyst at the Institut dÉtudes Politiques in Paris. She has been attacked, not because she is a woman, I believe, but on the question of competence. If she is at a disadvantage, it is because voters are not convinced she is up to the job -- and because the left has never had a majority in France.
Indeed, the combined total of the vote of Ms. Royal and the six other left-wing candidates, three of them women, is estimated at about 35 percent.
Sylviane Agacinski, a philosopher and the wife of Lionel Jospin, the Socialist candidate in the 2002 election, warned against the danger of reverse sexism.
Arguing in Wednesdays issue of Le Monde that Ms. Royals femininity has largely played in her favor, Ms. Agacinski said, In this election, the French are asking only to be convinced that she is the best, and not to see her become the symbol of sexist revenge.
Thus far, Ms. Royals appeal to the women of France does not seem to have resonated. Twenty-six percent of voters of both sexes say they intend to vote for her in the 12-way race on Sunday, according to an April 2 poll of more than 4,500 registered voters by the CSA polling institute. That poll also shows more women than men support Mr. Sarkozy -- 29 percent of female voters, compared with 24 percent of male voters.
Jean-Daniel Levy, political director at the CSA, said the gap reflected age more than gender: conservative voters tend to be older, he said, and the longer life expectancy for women means that there are more older female than male voters in France.
The age dimension is important, Mr. Levy said. Older women are inclined to vote for Sarkozy.
Women are also less inclined to support the extreme right, which has traditionally been a male-dominated movement that has opposed abortion rights and equality for women in the workplace.
Ms. Royals call to women may be part of a strategy to raise new issues in the final days of the campaign. On Tuesday, for example, she promised to end Frances monarchical drift by slashing the presidents entertainment budget, ending state subsidies for the private trips of ministers and examining the feasibility of opening ministerial gardens to the public.
In recent weeks, she has fared better in the polls, moving further ahead of François Bayrou, the head of the centrist Union for French Democracy party. But in no poll has she ever edged past Mr. Sarkozy.
Although Ms. Royals repeated portrayal of herself as a victim of sexism has been severely criticized, it still resonates in some quarters.
Some of her fiercest defenders deplore the fact that she is perpetually judged on the way she looks. Indeed, the fact that she prefers flouncy skirts over the sober pantsuits favored by politicians elsewhere, like the American presidential candidate Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, has been much remarked upon.
Her jackets and dresses are the object of permanent commentaries, wrote the novelist Geneviève Brisac in a commentary in Le Monde last month, adding, I am scandalized to see this woman attacked without end over who she is and her appearance.
Not all of Ms. Royals supporters are scandalized. In his comedy show, Jamel Debbouze compares Ms. Royal favorably to Mary Poppins. He says he hopes that if Ms. Royal is elected president, the photo of her in a blue bikini published last year will serve as her official portrait in every police station in France.
Ariane Bernard contributed reporting.