By Nicholas Vinocur
PARIS (Reuters) - Nine months ago Eva Joly, the French Greens' presidential candidate, was hailed as a wonder woman who could take her party to new heights on the national stage. Now her supporters are wondering out loud: how did it all turn out so badly?
As the vote draws near, Joly is limping toward the finishing line with polls giving her 2-3 percent of voting intentions in the first round of a two-stage election - a far cry from the 8 percent her party predicted for her last June.
Both politically and physically bruised after falling down stairs at a cinema, the former magistrate has had to fend off rumors that she would drop out of the race early to rally her troops behind Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande.
But as Joly hangs on - saying she prefers doing poorly to the dishonor of pulling out - her anti-nuclear party has descended into squabbling about the wisdom of choosing her as a candidate and of bothering with the presidential election at all.
"What is the point of us being in the presidential election if, on one hand, we are stuck with these bad polls... and if by staying in the race we help to weaken the Socialist Party's candidate, Francois Hollande?" Noel Mamere, who won 5.2 percent as the Greens' presidential candidate in 2002, told Vivre FM radio.
The soul-searching contrasts with the success of Germany's Greens, who are poised to challenge Angela Merkel's centre-right coalition in a federal election next year after a historic poll win in the conservative bastion of Baden-Wuerttemberg last year.
"It's a matter of political positioning," said Martine Billard, a member of parliament and former Green member who now advises hard left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.
"The left-right divide is still a very strong in France, and the Greens have not succeeded in making their position clear."
Graphic on French polls http://r.reuters.com/was36s
JOLY BIG MISTAKE?
It has been a steep fall from grace. Having recorded their best-ever score in a European Parliament election with 16.3 percent in 2009 led by charismatic Franco-German former student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the Greens were justifiably upbeat about their prospects this year.
The wider context was favorable, as Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster nourished a debate about the wisdom of relying on nuclear power for nearly 80 percent of French electricity needs - rendered more acute by Germany's plan to exit nuclear power.
French ecologists entered politics in the 1970s in the fight against atomic energy, attracting some veterans of the May 1968 student uprising who had dropped out to the countryside.
Today, the party has widened its appeal to the urban "bohemian bourgeois" class. The CEVIPOF research centre says Greens voters have the highest education level of any party. Their electorate is 70 percent male with an average age of 46.
Sensing an opportunity, the party faithful wanted a high-profile candidate with enough clout to break a curse of performing well in local and European contests, only to fall flat at national level.
A household name known for toughness and integrity from her years of hounding white-collar criminals, including politicians, as a muck-raking magistrate in the 1990s, Joly was a late convert to politics, untested on the national stage.
When Cohn-Bendit first encouraged her to run, he believed she would make the best of a rise in interest for green issues.
Asked about his choice less than a year later, he said the Greens should never have fielded a presidential candidate: "It was a mistake, mistakes will happen."
In a race dominated by economic anxiety, with left-wing voters focused on ejecting conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy from power, Joly's voice was drowned out, Cohn-Bendit told journalists at the Anglo-American press club in Paris.
It did not help that her Norwegian-accented French and straight-talking manner, which many see as "icy" or "brittle", grated on her audience, inviting mockery.
"There is a real personality problem. When we test the six top candidates in terms of their personalities, she consistently comes across as the least likeable," said Jean-Francois Doridot, an analyst at pollster IPSOS.
PACT WITH THE DEVIL
Two weeks before the first-round vote, Joly has her own version of what went wrong: a macho political establishment excluded a woman who did not attend the right schools and spoke with a funny accent.
"I have serious handicaps: I am a woman, I am a foreigner. Most of all, I do not belong to the French elite (...) I am happy to admit that I am different, but I also believe that there is a refusal of someone who does not come out of a mould," she told journalists.
Others see political fumbles and a tendency to misread French sensibilities playing a bigger role. Joly's suggestion to replace the annual Bastille Day military parade with a civilian march brought a hail of criticism.
Her biggest slip came in November, when a mysteriously silent Joly let Greens officials sign a deal with the Socialist Party under which they gained safe seats in parliament in exchange for accepting a slow-motion plan to reduce nuclear energy use to 50 percent of electricity generation by 2025.
"Once they struck that deal, she had no chance," said Billard. "People saw it as a complete abandonment of principles for a few seats in parliament."
(Reporting By Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Paul Taylor and Giles Elgood)