An "iron lady" might have been easier for France's old boys' network to deal with. Europe has seen a lot of ferrous females since Margaret Thatcher first appeared across the Channel in the 1970s. But in her rise to front runner in the French presidential elections, scheduled for next April, Ségolène Royal has caught her macho opponents completely off guard. After she announced her ambitions for the top job, Royal was dismissed as a lightweight; critics asked "who would mind the children" if she ran, and derided her glamorous style as "too much container and not enough content."

Big mistake. Last month Royal won the Socialist Party nomination by a landslide, not least because of her style. For a country weary of the same moldering male politicians--current President Jacques Chirac began his political career while Mao was still convulsing China--Royal is the face of change.

She is even something of a surprise to her closest associates. Royal has lived for decades with current Socialist Party chief François Hollande, and worked closely with the late president François Mitterrand. But she was a mere junior minister in the 1990s. Now, on the stump, she's turned out to be the most mediagenic candidate in French history. At 53, she's undeniably beautiful and comfortably chic, wearing bright colors (from Paule Ka for the most part) that leave her gray-suited rivals in the shade. As a campaigner her stamina is stunning. On a recent trip to Senegal, her press entourage marveled that even traveling through infernal heat Royal never broke a sweat. At a subliminal level, "Ségo" taps into the Gallic legends that made a girl in armor, Joan of Arc, the liberator of her country, and a mythical woman on the barricades, Marianne, the liberator of its people.

Her leading right-wing opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy, has also staked his campaign on change--in his case, combating Gallic stagnation with more American-style entrepreneurialism. But his medicine threatens to be bitter. While Royal hints at a Tony Blairish centrism, her advisers say she plans to keep her exact positions fairly vague until weeks before the election. For a French electorate that gave extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen 17 percent of the vote in 2002 and sank the European constitution last year, that's just fine. They want their frustrations to be heard; it remains an open question whether they're prepared for the bite of real reforms.

If she wins, though, how will Royal make the shift from listener to leader? There's the hint in her manner of another iconic French character, the institutrice , or schoolmistress, as she flashes a commanding smile when her patience is tested by impertinent questions. That side of her may come to the fore in the later stages of the campaign. Having heard out the people, and decided on the assignment, she'll eventually have to tell the class it's time to get to work. Only then will we know if France is ready for change as a fact, not just as a face.