Hollande leads Socialist presidential challengers


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The Independent Online

A kiss is never just a kiss. François Hollande, more than ever the favourite to be the Socialist challenger to Nicolas Sarkozy next spring, planted a very public smacker on the cheek of his nearest rival, Martine Aubry, at the party's summer school at La Rochelle this weekend. A kiss of death? Or a kiss of friendly rivalry? Or perhaps a kiss of triumph, in the knowledge that an opinion poll was about to give him a comfortable 10 per cent lead in the Socialist primary?

Ms Aubry, 61, the leader of the Parti Socialiste and the mayor of Lille, started the conference on Friday in aggressive mood. She said that the party had been a "laughing stock" when she took over from the previous first secretary in 2008. The previous first secretary was Mr Hollande. One of her campaign managers accused Mr Hollande, 57, of running a "grandad's" campaign for the nomination: in other words plodding, predictable and out-of-date. Mr Hollande and his supporters spent the three-day conference avoiding confrontation.

An IFOP poll published yesterday in the Journal du Dimanche suggested that Mr Hollande was now the choice of 41 per cent of "leftist sympathisers" to challenge Mr Sarkozy in the presidential election proper next April and May. Ms Aubry, who was neck-and-neck with Mr Hollande, has slumped to 31 per cent.

Four other primary candidates, including the 2007 defeated presidential contender Ségolène Royal, Mr Hollande's former partner, shared 25 per cent. Among Socialist party members, Mr Hollande is even more popular (47 per cent). The primary, which takes place over two rounds on 9 and 16 October, is, however, open to all voters who "share the values of the Left".

Can anything now prevent François Hollande being the Socialist nominee? All eyes are on the expected return to France this week of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who led the party primary polls before his arrest in New York in May on attempted rape charges, dropped last week. There is no chance of Mr Strauss-Kahn entering the primary campaign but some party leaders believe he could still influence its outcome. They are pressing him to back one side or another (in practice Ms Aubry) in the next few days.