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Royal struggles to rally support in leadership bid

Text by AFP

Latest update : 2008-11-15

After announcing on Friday her bid for the Socialist Party leadership, Ségolène Royal found little immediate enthusiasm Saturday at the party congress in Reims, as Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë refused to back the former presidential candidate.

View our special coverage: 'French Socialists looking for some fizz'


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Former presidential candidate Segolene Royal struggled Saturday to rally support for her bid to lead the Socialists at a party congress that threatened to leave the French left in tatters.

Eighteen months after she was trounced by rightwinger Nicolas Sarkozy in presidential polls, Royal announced she was in the running to lead the opposition through renewal and a likely showdown with Sarkozy in 2012.

But her announcement during a closed-door meeting with supporters late Friday immediately touched off a fresh round of backroom manoeuvring between Royal's many enemies in the party.

Martine Aubry, the architect of the 35-hour work week, was eyeing a rival bid while Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, long tipped as a strong contender, was searching for a compromise candidate.

Delanoe took the floor on the second day of the congress in Reims, the capital of the Champagne region, to appeal for concessions to find a leader with clear majority support who could avoid a damaging split in the party.

"We must have a situation tomorrow in which we know what the Socialist Party stands for," said Delanoe. "I did everything I could to achieve this."

Socialist leaders have portrayed the three-day congress as a last chance for the party to restore its credibility and end the seemingly endless squabbling between cliques.

After three consecutive defeats in presidential elections, the Socialists have been unable to build a strong opposition to Sarkozy since he took office last year.

Royal's candidacy was propelled by her first-place showing in a vote by the party membership last week in which her manifesto for the party's renewal won nearly 30 percent of the vote against Delanoe and four other contenders.

But the 55-year-old president of the Poitou-Charente region still faces formidable opponents determined to block her rise to the party leadership.

Royal outmanoeuvred heavyweights to win the party nomination in 2006, but her defeat to Sarkozy last year after a campaign in which she often brushed aside party dogma has made her unpopular in some circles.

Socialist minority leader in parliament, Jean-Marc Ayrault, once a strong Royal supporter who sided with Delanoe's camp, described her as a "divisive" figure who would be unable to effectively lead the party.

"We are heading into a clash and I am afraid of this," Ayrault told reporters, before suggesting that Royal could withdraw her candidacy to make way for a less controversial leader.

That prospect however appeared unlikely.

A new secretary-general is to be formally elected on Thursday, but that vote by party members is expected to endorse the outcome of the Reims congress.

Socialists however expressed worries that no candidate would emerge with majority support, crystallizing the party's divisions and setting the stage for more bickering in the years to come.

"I expect this congress to be useful and calm," Royal said as she arrived at the congress venue in Reims, in eastern France.

"I expect us to have the strength to unite and the strength to change."

As Socialists decided on their future in Reims, Sarkozy was meeting with world leaders in Washington, making the case for more state regulation of global finance -- a traditionally leftist plank.

Sarkozy was to be joined by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former finance minister and managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) who remains the most popular Socialist, according to a poll released at the weekend.

Date created : 2008-11-15