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French Socialists vie for political centre stage

French Socialists are hoping that party primaries in October will give them broad media attention and a head start in the campaign for next year's presidential election.


France’s Socialist Party has crossed a critical point in its drive to unseat President Nicolas Sarkozy in next year’s presidential election. After holding its annual summer gathering in the western city of La Rochelle over the weekend, it hopes to dominate political headlines in weeks to come.

The Socialist "summer school" is traditionally a place to build party consensus and drum up enthusiasm ahead of the political calendar, which in France starts in September. But the talk this year was all about the fast approaching primary to choose a nominee for the 2012 presidential election.

Party leaders hope the primaries will set the pace for their larger presidential campaign next year, and help garner broad news coverage ahead of Sarkozy’s re-election push.

The vote will be open to all registered voters, provided they sign a declaration that they adhere to the values of the left and pay one euro. Organizers hope it will rally at least one million people.

The two-round primary, scheduled for October 9 and 16, will decide who among six candidates will be President Sarkozy’s main challenger next year.

François Hollande, a former party leader and self-styled "ordinary guy" of French politics, has emerged as the frontrunner. His successor at the party's helm, Lille mayor Martine Aubry, is desperately trying to close the gap, but recent polls have seen her trailing Hollande by as much as 11 points.

A distant third, Ségolène Royal, the 2007 presidential runner-up, has struggled to convince left-leaning French voters that she still has presidential credentials, though she may yet influence the outcome of the vote.

At La Rochelle, Royal hinted again that she would throw her support behind Aubry, rather than her former partner Hollande. “May the best candidate win,” she told reporters on Friday, provocatively using the feminine form in French to suggest the winner would be a woman: either herself or Aubry.

Division or debate?

Small slights, like the one delivered by Royal, punctuated the party gathering, as the Socialist leaders juggled the dual need of distinguishing themselves from rival candidates while at the same time showcasing a united party in front of cameras.

Aubry and Hollande avoided overt criticism of each other, but also avoided appearing together throughout the weekend. Overall, France’s main opposition party seemed to rise above the acrimony that has plagued it in recent years.

“The match has started. We are competitors not adversaries,” said Aubry, who has temporarily handed over her duties as the party’s first secretary to be a candidate in the primaries.

Her comment underscored Socialist leaders’ general concern to turn the primaries into a major media event and a political advantage, rather than yet another occasion for damaging press coverage of party infighting.

Rank and file party members were also aware of the potential for success or disaster that the primaries carry. Josselin Thery, a party member from the south-eastern city of Saint-Étienne, worried that the media were already overplaying internal divisions. “Contrary [to headlines], we are using this event to debate calmly and to concentrate on our common goal: to beat the right in 2012,” he said.

But another party member, who asked to remain anonymous, admitted his exasperation with the rivalry he said had once more surfaced at the meeting. “Politics is serious, the economic crisis is serious…we need to stop the charades that divide us and discredit us among French voters,” he said.

Party members reassured journalists in La Rochelle that despite individual inclinations for one candidate or another, they would all rally behind one nominee in the end. Their hope is that October’s internal contest, with the right kind of media attention, will help convince French voters to do the same.

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