Bickering left struggles to capitalise on Chirac's woe

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The Independent Online

France's main opposition Socialist party is trying to end five months of ideological feuding and to prove that it is still a serious political force.

With the country shaken by 20 days of riots, and President Jacques Chirac desperately unpopular, it might seem an ideal time for the leading opposition party to hold a national conference.

In fact, the main task of the three-day congress in Le Mans, starting this afternoon, is to prove that the Parti Socialiste is still a moderate, mainstream party, capable of winning an election.

The pro-European, centre-left party created by François Mitterrand in the 1970s was torn apart by May's referendum on the EU constitution. It has been riven ever since by personal ambitions and the efforts of some to move towards an anti-capitalist, anti-EU and anti-globalist agenda. The next presidential election is 18 months away but speculation on the identity of the Next Big Name in French politics focuses on the two rivals on the centre-right, Nicolas Sarkozy and Dominique de Villepin. The Socialists have plenty of candidates - far too many - but none capable of commanding their own party, let alone the country.

The party's moderate, honourable but uncharismatic leader, François Hollande, won a significant victory last week. His motion calling for the Socialists to pursue a cautious, social-democratic, pro-EU course - Mitterandiste rather than Blairist - won just under 55 per cent of the votes of party members.

Two other motions, supported by the former prime minister Laurent Fabius, and two, ambitious young radicals, Arnaud Montebourg and Vincent Peillon, scored just over 20 per cent each. The failed motions called on the party to move closer to the position of France's Trotskyist, Communist and anti-globalist hard left and adopt policies which are more clearly protectionist, anti-capitalist and anti-European.

The results have been challenged by the losers, who accuse the party leadership of, in effect, stuffing ballot boxes. Even the official results - though good enough to save M. Hollande's job - suggest the Parti Socialiste is carved down the middle.

The result of the party vote was a disaster for M. Fabius, who abandoned his moderate, pro-European views to campaign against the EU treaty in the hopes of seizing the leadership. His motion scored only 22 per cent of the vote.

However, the outcome was scarcely more encouraging for the other leading figures of the party, such as M. Hollande, his wife, Ségolène Royal, the former finance minister, Dominique Strauss Kahn, or the former education minister, Jack Lang.

Each has ambitions to be the main presidential candidate of the left in 2007. All favour a modern, social-democratic approach which is now rejected by over 40 per cent of Socialist party militants and by the majority of the wider French left.

M. Hollande was meeting his rivals yesterday and today to try to win agreement on a composite motion. Positions are so opposed that party officials admit that this is unlikely.

At best, M. Hollande can hope to draft a vague declaration to give the impression of restored party unity.