View our special coverage: 'French Socialists looking for some fizz'
France's opposition Socialists opened a party congress on Friday, riven by divisions as former presidential candidate Segolene Royal moved to take the helm and revive the left.
Eighteen months after she was trounced by rightwinger Nicolas Sarkozy in presidential polls, Royal announced that she would be a candidate for the party leadership during a closed-door meeting with supporters.
"It is with much emotion and with solemnity ... that Segolene Royal has made this commitment," her close aide Manuel Valls told reporters in the eastern city of Reims.
Royal, 55, decided to throw her hat in the ring after her manifesto for the party's renewal came out on top during a ballot by party members last week, with nearly 30 percent of the vote.
But her first-place showing touched off fresh infighting and it remained an open question whether the party would unite behind a new leader who will likely challenge Sarkozy in the 2012 vote.
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.
"I expect this congress to be useful and calm," Royal said as she arrived at the congress venue. "I expect us to have the strength to unite and the strength to change."
Royal's three top rivals for the leadership including Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe met earlier Friday to try to reach common ground but no deal was announced following the talks.
Delanoe's star waned after he made a disappointing showing in the party membership vote, picking up 25 percent, on a par with Martine Aubry, a staunch Royal opponent.
Aubry, the architect of the 35-hour work week and daughter of former European Commission president Jacques Delors, moved to form an alliance with Benoit Hamon, the 41-year-old Euro-MP who is advocating a shift to the left.
Hamon, who won 19 percent of the vote, is also the face of the party's fortysomethings who are eager to see the old guard -- often disparaged as the "elephants" -- step aside.
The three-day congress began in Reims, the capital of the Champagne region, with appeals for unity to give the party a voice at a time when France is struggling with the fall-out of the global financial crisis.
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.
As Socialists decide on their future in Reims, Sarkozy will be meeting with world leaders in Washington, making the case for more state regulation of global finance -- a traditionally leftist plank.
"There will be no victory in 2012 without a strong and united Socialist Party, so let's unite," said outgoing party leader Francois Hollande, Royal's former partner and father of her four children. The couple split last year.
More than 900 delegates in Reims are to vote on the party's programme for the next three years and choose the candidate who will be its standard-bearer.
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.
If Royal succeeds in broadening her appeal, she will become the first woman to lead the Socialist Party.
Delegates also heard a senior Socialist known for his anti-racism stance call on the party to give minorities a bigger role after the victory of Barack Obama in the United States.
"For many of us, the time for waiting is over," Malek Boutih told delegates. "The time has come to ask... the time has come to conquer."
France's political establishment remains overwhelmingly white despite the appointment of two women of north African descent and a black human rights minister in Sarkozy's government.