Socialist leadership race too close to call

The second round of a bitterly contested Socialist Party election is too close to call between former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal and Lille mayor Martine Aubry, the architect of the 35-hour working week. A recount is underway.



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Former presidential candidate Segolene Royal will square off against Martine Aubry, the architect of France's 35-hour work week, in a runoff Friday after opposition Socialists remained divided in a vote for a new leader.

After a fierce contest that left the party more divided than ever, Royal got 42.45 percent of votes in a first round Thursday while Aubry came second with 34.73 percent. Leftist Euro-MP Benoit Hamon was eliminated from the contest.

The results did not include France's overseas territories.

The Socialist Party's 233,000 members cast their ballots after a party congress meant to unite behind a consensus candidate ended in disarray at the weekend.

With none of the contenders garnering a majority, a runoff vote was to be held between Royal and Aubry on Friday, national elections secretary Bruno Le Roux said. Turnout was 59.9 percent, he added.

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

Leading the pack but by no means assured of victory, Royal, 55, has promised to reshape France's left by opening the party's doors to a younger membership and possibly forging an alliance with centrists.

But critics accuse her of wanting to transform the Socialist Party into her own personal electoral machine for the 2012 vote, and while she remains popular with the rank-and-file many of the party barons have turned against her.

Her detractors 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.

Royal on Thursday brushed aside criticism of her style and renewed her vow to reform the party.

"People will get used to it. They will get used to my political persona and will want me to be myself, to change the Socialist Party," she told Europe 1 radio.

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 has bowed out and is backing Aubry, 58, the mayor of Lille and daughter of former European Commission president Jacques Delors for the post.

One of Royal's fiercest foes, Aubry is pushing a platform that calls for anchoring the party firmly to the left. She also received backing for the runoff from 41-year-old Hamon, who called on his supporters to vote "massively" for her.

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.

"One thing is certain: the current Socialist Party needs to go back to the drawing board," commented the leftist Liberation newspaper.

"The winner will have to come in with a big broom, create a new programme for a party that has lost its voice at a time of economic crisis and remobilise distraught members who now openly express their despair," it wrote.

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