Socialists set to elect new leader

French socialists vote on Thursday to pick a new leader after a campaign marked by bitter divisions, internal fighting and a party congress that failed to unite the Socialist Party behind one candidate.



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France's opposition Socialists vote Thursday for a new leader after a fierce contest laid bare deep divisions and threatened to scuttle their chances of building a challenge to President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Former presidential candidate Segolene Royal is putting her political survival on the line as she squares off against rivals Martine Aubry, the architect of France's 35-hour work week, and leftist Euro-MP Benoit Hamon.

The vote by the party's 233,000 members -- which could head into a runoff on Friday -- comes on the heels of a party congress that ended in disarray at the weekend after delegates failed to agree on a consensus candidate.

The stakes are high for France's main opposition party.

After three consecutive defeats in presidential elections, the Socialists have been bogged down in internal squabbling and unable to score any points off Sarkozy since he took office last year.

Royal, 55, on Wednesday complained she should have been annointed leader after her manifesto for the party's renewal came out first in a vote by the rank-and-file this month, beating out those of five other contenders.

"They should have united behind the programme that won the first place. That's the rule. But because it was me and a new generation, they refused to abide by it," Royal said in an interview to Le Monde newspaper.

"I symbolise change and even a break with the past ... I have a special connection with the people. That is my strength and this also unsettles some people."

Royal, the president of the Poitou-Charente regional council, won the party's nomination for the 2007 vote, but she has since lost support after waging a campaign in which she often brushed aside party dogma.

Critics accuse her of wanting to transform the Socialist Party into her own personal electoral machine for the 2012 vote.

They contend the party should be a forum of ideas to formulate alternative policies to those of the right-wing government. The Socialists are not scheduled to nominate their presidential candidate before 2011.

Party members are choosing a successor to Francois Hollande, Royal's former partner and father of her four children, who sided with Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe during the leadership battle.

Delanoe on Monday announced that he was backing Aubry, 58, the daughter of former European Commission president Jacques Delors, touching off a fresh round of mudslinging.

Hamon, a 41-year-old rising star in the party, lamented that the Socialists "were creating the impression of being angrier at other Socialists than against the right."

Royal, who was at times jeered and booed at the party congress, has promised to open debate on forming an alliance with centrists to defeat Sarkozy in 2012.

But both Aubry and Hamon maintain that the global financial crisis has vindicated their view that a clear leftist approach is needed, in favour of strong state intervention and social programmes.

The infighting has left most commentators wondering whether the party of late president Francois Mitterrand can overcome its divisions and become a governing force in time for 2012.

While Royal could still win the vote, her ability to lead would be badly crippled without the support of party barons who hold sway in the Socialists' leadership councils.

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