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Austerity row overshadows French Socialists' annual rally

AFP - Ex-economy minister Arnaud Montebourg delivers a speech at the Socialist rally in La Rochelle
3 min

More than 2,000 of the party faithful are at the French Socialist Party’s 22nd annual summer rally this weekend in the western port city of La Rochelle, amid a dispute over the government’s austerity measures.

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Fake smiles, tense hugs and nervous chatter: With the summer rally coming just days after an emergency cabinet reshuffle sparked by a row over President Francois Hollande’s economic policies, the body language of the Socialist party members betrays their uneasiness.

Nicolas, a 22-year-old student from La Rochelle, told FRANCE 24 that he was “taken aback” by the open feud in the government over the country’s economic direction.

France’s high-profile economy minister, Arnaud Montebourg (pictured, above), and two other ministers left the government this week after criticising Hollande’s “obsession” with austerity and deficit reduction.

“I think the reshuffle may eventually be a good thing. The government is likely to lose support among some core party members and the French, but this new team is on the same page and will get on with reforming the country more quickly,” Nicolas said.

FRANCE 24’s correspondent reporting from La Rochelle, Anne-Diandra Louarn, said that party members opposed to Hollande’s deficit focus also held a public meeting on Saturday, just a few hundred metres from the Socialists’ official venue.

Battle for the soul of the Socialists

These dissidents, who largely back Montebourg, are calling for an increase in welfare spending and public works to inject money into the economy.

Some 450 people attended the meeting, which called itself “Long Live the Left!”. France’s minister of justice, Christine Taubira, made a surprise appearance at the dissident gathering, where speakers highlighted the urgent need for action.

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While most party members at the rally proper were keen to describe the dissent as part of normal democratic debate, others worried openly that the harder left Socialist lawmakers could even split off from the party as Hollande drags the party towards the centre.

“I’m really worried for the future of the party” Andrea, a member of the Socialists for more than 40 years, admitted to FRANCE 24. “We can’t deny that the government’s blunders are becoming more and more serious… it looks to me like the dissidents are about to create a new party.”

Despite desperate calls from the party’s secretary-general to make a show of unity at La Rochelle, the battle lines for the soul of the party have been drawn.

“The party’s left-leaning politicians will not keep quiet,” reported FRANCE 24’s Clovis Casali from at La Rochelle.

“The former economy minister, Arnaud Montebourg, is attending the event,” Casali added. “No doubt he will reiterate his attacks against the Socialists’ austerity programme – and it will be interesting to see how many here support his views.”

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