Socialist Hollande to challenge for party nomination


FRANCE’S Socialist Party moved to play down divisions in its ranks yesterday after one of its former leaders joined the growing field of candidates hoping to challenge Nicolas Sarkozy for the presidency next year.

François Hollande this week became the fourth prominent Socialist Party figure to declare he would contest its presidential primary this autumn, resisting pressure from supporters of the two front-runners, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Martine Aubry, to stand aside.

Mr Hollande lost out to Ségolène Royal, his then-partner and mother of his four children, for the Socialist nomination in 2007, but has seen his popularity rise in the past year after overhauling his image with a new look and a carefully managed political campaign.

“There is no time to lose. It is urgent. There comes a point where there must be ideas and the embodiment of change,” Mr Hollande said in his declaration speech in Corrèze, his political base in south-central France, on Thursday.

He pointedly said he was putting his name forward for “the presidential election, by way of the Socialist Party primary” and was careful to avoid criticising party colleagues in a speech aimed squarely at the unpopular Mr Sarkozy. But the former party leader’s announcement has revived concerns that the Socialist Party may once again find itself riven by internal rivalries when its primary season begins.

Ms Royal has already said she will put forward her name when nominations open in June, as have Manuel Valls and Arnaud Montebourg, two younger socialists. Neither of the current favourites – Ms Aubry, the party leader, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund – has yet declared, although it is believed the pair have agreed that they should not stand against one another.

Polls suggest Mr Strauss-Kahn is the best-placed socialist to beat Mr Sarkozy next year, and his supporters had asked Mr Hollande not to stand.

Both occupy similar ideological territory in the party’s social-democratic wing, but Mr Hollande has a stronger internal network and is the more popular of the two men on the party’s left.

Asked if Mr Hollande’s announcement was an embarrassment for a party that has recently stressed unity of purpose, spokesman Benoît Hamon said: “On the contrary. The primaries are taking shape with the confirmation of a new candidate.” Mr Hamon indicated he would be supporting Ms Aubry, saying she had “all the qualities” required for the presidency.

Caricatured for years as a genial, inoffensive conciliator, Mr Hollande has recently cast himself as a serious, determined leader. He has lost more than 15kg, adopted designer glasses and begun wearing sharp suits – all aimed, he admitted this week, at making him more credible as a future president.

The next stage in the Socialists’ campaign for the Élysée Palace comes on Tuesday, when senior figures meet in Paris to sign off on an agreed manifesto. But with primary candidates also preparing political programmes, party officials fear the manifesto, intended as a unifying project, could end up exposing divisions further.