Segolene Royal, a former environment minister who has shaken up French politics with her grassroots campaign, won the overwhelming backing of the main opposition Socialist Party in her bid to become the country's first female president.

Royal's triumph Thursday night over former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius and former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn means she can head into the April election claiming the oft-divided party is fully behind her.

A 53-year-old mother of four, Royal distinguishes herself from most lofty and grave French politicians by small signals: She smiles. She often wears white. Her catch phrases "participative democracy" and "collective intelligence" put faith in ordinary people.

After winning the Socialist nomination in a single round of voting, Royal sought to unite the French left in general, some of whom she has alienated with her unorthodox views.

"Tomorrow, I'll have the job of bringing them all together — including those who didn't vote for me," Royal said in her victory speech. "I am counting on them."

The vote was the culmination of an unprecedented American-style "primary" campaign that marked a shift away from a tradition of politics being decided behind closed doors.

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Royal and her challengers faced off in six debates, three of them televised nationally. Royal, especially, sought to bypass the male-dominated Socialist elite by appealing directly to party members and to the French electorate at large.

By the final tally, Royal had about 60 percent of votes, while Strauss-Kahn won 20 percent and Fabius gained 18 percent, officials said. About 82 percent of the 219,000 party members eligible to vote cast ballots.

"To be chosen in this way is something extraordinary," Royal said as results were coming in early Friday. "I want to embody this change and make it credible and legitimate. I think that tonight this legitimacy has been given to me."

Royal's solid victory suggested that the party is ready to put differences aside to fight the right — and its front-runner, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

After more than a decade under conservative 73-year-old President Jacques Chirac, France is craving change — especially after riots by poor teenagers last fall and violent protests by university students in the spring.

"So many people have shut themselves off from politics," said Florian Liscouet, a 19-year political science student who voted for Royal in Paris on Thursday. "French politics is in need of rearmament. And Segolene Royal can bring about this social and political renovation."

Royal has held several Cabinet jobs, including a yearlong stint as environment minister. Today she is both a lawmaker in France's lower house and president of the Poitou-Charentes region in western France, the equivalent of a governorship.

Royal's deference to voters has sparked accusations that she is too populist. Asked whether Turkey should be allowed to join the European Union, for example, she answered, "My opinion is that of the French people." In a poll published Monday in Le Figaro newspaper, Royal's lowest ratings came in criteria such as "has international stature" and "has real political experience."

The Socialists, who dominated the French political scene a generation ago, have been searching for direction since former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's embarrassing third-place finish in the last presidential vote, in 2002.

Though a spectrum of candidates from far left to far right are preparing to run in the presidential election, the centerpiece of the race is likely to be a battle between Royal and Sarkozy.

A poll published Thursday showed respondents equally split between the two. In a first round of voting, Sarkozy would edge out Royal by 34 percent to 30 percent, the poll said — but in a runoff, they would be at 50-50. The IFOP agency conducted the poll Nov. 9-11 by telephone among 948 respondents. No margin of error was given.

The Socialists, who ran the government under Jospin from 1997 to 2002, made one of their biggest marks with passage of the so-called 35-hour workweek law, which conservatives say has hurt the economy.

Critics say the Socialists have no feasible recipes for facing a globalizing economy or revitalizing growth. The party manifesto calls for expanding use of the much-maligned workweek law, re-nationalizing the power company Electricite de France, and punishing companies that move jobs abroad.