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(CNN) -- Segolene Royal is the first woman in the history of France to emerge as a presidential hopeful. She has made waves in a political arena traditionally dominated by men and her presence in the campaign is sparking debate over the role of women in French culture.
Royal is a member of the National Assembly as head of the western region of Poitou-Charente and a prominent figure in the Socialist party.
Royal, 53, was born in Senegal and grew up in rural eastern France with seven siblings. She studied politics at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris and attended the Ecole Nationale d'Administration or the ENA, a clearinghouse for France's ruling elite.
One of eight brothers and sisters, Royal rebelled against her father, an army colonel, to gain her independence.
Royal's father felt little need for women to be educated and held antiquated views regarding the role of women in society. When he refused to grant her mother a divorce, Royal sued her father for a divorce as well as financial support for one of her brothers.
While Royal's political experience is dwarfed in comparison to heavy-hitter Nicolas Sarkozy, she has a strong record of promoting education and social services. The mother of four is also an avid supporter of gay rights and has promised to legalize gay marriage if elected president. Royal is a recent convert in the debate over gay rights, throwing her weight behind gay marriage last year.
After leaving the ENA in 1980, Royal served as a magistrate to the administrative court. From 1982 to 1988 she served on the staff of President Fancois Mitterand in the rank of chargee de mission for health, environment and youth.
She has been elected to four terms as a deputy of Deux-Sevres, serving since 1988. She has held various government posts -- including Environment Minister, Vice-Minister for Education, Vice-Minister for Family and Childhood, Vice-Minister for Family, and Childhood and Handicapped Persons.
While Royal has proven her media savvy in the past recent political blunders and party infighting have left her campaign with a black eye. Her family was also subject to criticism in the media in 2006 after a story emerged that one of Royal's brothers was a spy involved in the 1985 sinking of a Greenpeace ship, the Rainbow Warrior.
-- Compiled by Zein Basravi for CNN
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