View our special report: 'French Socialists looking for some fizz'
Defeated presidential candidate Segolene Royal is the frontrunner in the French Socialist party's tortuous process to pick a new leader capable of building a credible opposition to President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Royal, defeated by Sarkozy in last year's election, came out top in a ballot Thursday of the party's 233,000 members who had to pick from six contenders presenting manifestos for the future of the party.
But the vote failed to put an end to infighting, with Royal immediately coming under attack from Socialist heavyweights who said she still did not have majority support.
Sarkozy's UMP party said the vote was further proof of the "immense confusion" in the socialist camp.
Royal's manifesto won about 29 percent of the votes, four points ahead of both Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe and former employment minister Martine Aubry who picked up 25 percent each.
The result was released a week before a three-day conference in the eastern city of Reims to decide on a political programme and a leader who will be its standard-bearer.
Party members will then formally elect a new leader to succeed Secretary General Francois Hollande -- Royal's ex-partner -- on November 20, but that vote is expected to endorse the outcome of the Reims meeting.
The lengthy process is meant to bring a final end to the bitter infighting in which the Socialists have been bogged down.
After three consecutive defeats in presidential elections, the party has been unable to build a strong opposition or to take advantage of Sarkozy's poor opinion poll ratings.
But Thursday's vote did not bring much harmony, with Hollande, a Delanoe supporter, saying that Royal's score "did not enable her to have a majority in the Socialist Party."
Royal, 55, who has been criticised for trying to make the party more centrist but has shifted to the left since the financial crisis, retorted that "the vote will have to be respected."
The endless squabbling has left most commentators wondering whether the party built around late president Francois Mitterrand can unite and become a governing force in time for the 2012 presidential vote.
Hollande said in an interview with French radio that if no majority strand emerged there would be "difficult days" ahead for the party.
The Socialist minority leader in parliament Jean-Marc Ayrault warned this week that the party could degenerate into "mayhem" if the rank and file fail to deliver a clear message on the leadership choices.
Another sign of the discord emerged Friday when a senator and a deputy said they were leaving the Socialists to form a more left-wing movement.
Royal's top challenger is Delanoe. One of France's most popular politicians, the 58-year-old's manifesto calls for a "decidedly reformist left, that is pro-European, pro-environment and efficient."
But the Paris mayor, France's only prominent openly-gay politician, has come under fire for declaring himself a "free-market advocate and a socialist" a few months before world markets were hit by the financial crisis.
A fierce Royal opponent, Martine Aubry, 58, is shaping up as a wild card.
The architect of France's 35-hour working week has attracted a mixed bag of support, ranging from the market-friendly former economy minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who now heads the International Monetary Fund, and ex-prime minister Laurent Fabius, a euro-sceptic.