Party awaits verdict on fraud allegations

France's fractured Socialist Party will hear Tuesday if they have a new leader, after a bitter contest between Segolene Royal, who ran for president against Nicolas Sarkozy last year, and Lille mayor Martine Aubry.


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France's opposition Socialists were to hear on Tuesday whether they have a new leader as a bruising dispute over a leadership vote threatened to split the party.

Martine Aubry, the mayor of Lille and architect of France's much-maligned 35-hour work week, edged out former presidential candidate Segolene Royal by 42 votes to win the ballot by party members on Friday.

But Royal, who lost to right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy in last year's presidential elections, is contesting the result and has called for a new vote.

A party commission convened on Monday to examine complaints from both camps and the party's national council was to meet later Tuesday to hear its findings and decide on the winner.

"There are thousands of contested votes," Royal said late Monday on French television station Canal Plus. "I really don't see how we can avoid going back to the voters."

The feuding has pushed the already deeply-divided Socialist Party closer to a formal split between the leftist old guard backing Aubry and Royal's centre-left followers.

Sarkozy's right-wing supporters meanwhile are chuckling with delight as the Socialists have gone after each other's throats.

The squabbling marked a dramatic turn for the Socialists since their heyday when Francois Mitterrand held the presidency from 1981 to 1995, and Socialists led governments until as late as 2002.

The party now holds a minority in parliament but controls 21 of France's 22 regional councils and also key cities such as Paris, Lyon and Toulouse.

Royal's camp has threatened to take the dispute to court, raising the prospect of a protracted leadership battle.

The new party leader will be in pole position to be Socialist standard-bearer for the 2012 presidential election.

The election will also mark the first time that a woman is chosen to lead the Socialist Party.

Aubry won 50.02 percent of the vote against 49.98 percent for Royal, according to official results released by the party.

Royal had campaigned on a promise to reshape France's left by opening the party's doors to a younger membership and possibly forging an alliance with centrists.

Aubry has vowed to keep the party "solidly anchored on the left," warning that a shift to the centre would alienate its traditional voter base at a time when the financial crisis has revived leftist state-driven economics.

The party council was to meet at 1700 GMT after the commission probing the disputed vote holds a final meeting.

Deputy Vincent Peillon, a Royal supporter, said Aubry's margin had been reduced to just four votes after the commission reviewed the tally.

But Aubry's lieutenant, Francois Lamy, has accused Royal of trying to mount a "media coup" and suggested that the party council, most of whom backed Aubry in the battle, will side with her.

The Socialist leader in parliament, Jean-Marc Ayrault, called on the two women to call a truce and come to agreement.

"We must stop this totally ridiculous soap opera," Ayrault told French television. "Whoever leads the Socialist Party tomorrow will not be able to do so without the others."


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