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France’s Valls downplays speculation of rift with Hollande over left-wing primaries

Stéphane de Sakutin, AFP | French President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls at the Elysée presidential palace in Paris on September 28, 2016

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls dismissed speculation of a possible rift with President François Hollande on Monday, a day after he raised the prospect of challenging his boss in the country’s upcoming left-wing presidential primaries.

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Although Valls stopped short of officially declaring his candidacy, he hinted that he was preparing to run, saying he was “ready” for the left-wing primaries, which are due to be held in two rounds on January 22 and 29.

"I will make a conscious decision...Whatever happens, the best interests of the country will influence my decision," he said in an interview published on Sunday by French weekly newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche.

But Valls dismissed speculation of a split with Hollande on Monday, after the pair met over lunch for the first time since the story broke.

“There cannot be, especially at a time when France is confronted by the threat of terrorism, a political confrontation between the president of the Republic and the prime minister over a primary election,” sources close to Valls told AFP.

Hollande’s entourage also minimised the incident, describing the lunch as “warm and productive”.

Until this weekend, Valls had presented himself as a loyalist, dodging questions over a potential presidential bid by saying he would wait to declare until after Hollande made a decision on whether to seek re-election. Hollande, who is widely expected to pursue a second term, has until December 15 to announce his candidacy.

The unexpected move by Valls threatens to further divide an already fractured Socialist Party, and came as conservatives voted overwhelmingly on Sunday to nominate former prime minister François Fillon as their candidate in the 2017 presidential elections.

In an effort to contain the situation, government spokesman Stéphane Le Foll quickly rejected the possibility of a Hollande vs. Valls showdown in the primaries.

“To those who say there could be a primary election with the president and prime minister, I say there won’t be a primary between the president and the prime minister,” Le Foll told France’s Europe 1 radio on Monday.

Socialist Party Chairman Jean-Christophe Cambadélis also brushed off the idea of a conflict between Hollande and Valls.

“It’s not out of the ordinary for the Socialist Party, including the prime minister and the president of the Republic, to ask what’s the best formula to win the election, but it can’t come at the expense of a leadership crisis,” he said on France 2 television. “[I] support a primary for the entire left wing, but not necessarily including all of its leaders.”

If Valls ran in the primaries, he would likely defeat Hollande, who is the least popular president in modern French history. According to a recent study by Harris Interactive, 65 percent of voters said they preferred Valls to Hollande as the left-wing nominee.

Yet polls say neither man stands a real chance of making it past the first round of the presidential election on April 23. A flash poll on Sunday – also by Harris Interactive – found that both Valls and Hollande would only win around 9 percent of the vote, placing them behind Fillon (with 26 percent) and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen (with 24 percent), as well as Hollande’s former economy minister, independent candidate Emmanuel Macron, and the far-left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

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