French politician defends Quebec comments

French presidential candidate Ségolène Royal is appearing to back down from earlier comments on Quebec sovereignty.

French presidential candidate Ségolène Royal said Tuesdaythat she hadn't interfered in Canadian affairs by commenting onQuebec sovereignty.

Francecannot dictate policy to Quebecers and Canadians, the leader of France's Socialist party told Europe 1 radio on Tuesday, according to Reuters.

"It is not up to France to dictate to either the Québécois or the Canadians what they must do," Royal said. "But, on the other hand, the principles of sovereignty and freedom seem to me absolutely incontestable."

Royal sparked a diplomatic row on Monday by suggesting she is sympathetic to the idea of Quebec sovereignty after a short meeting with André Boisclair, the head of the separatist Parti Québécois.

The comments drew rebukes from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Quebec Premier Jean Charest.

InTuesday's radio interview,Royal said she was not referring to "institutional reforms" but that Quebecers are free to decide on their own future.

"What I said, which I confirm, is that as in any democracy, the people who vote are sovereign and free.So the people of Quebec will decide freely on their destiny when the time comes, if they are asked," she said.

This isn't the first campaign gaffe for Royal, who polls suggest trails rival presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of the spring vote, said Reuters.

During a trip to the Middle East in December, Royal had to backtrack after appearing to side with a member of the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah, who chided the "insanity" of American foreign policy.

During a trip to China earlier this month, Royal was criticized for favourably comparing China's justice system with France's and for failing to address Chinese human rights concerns.