The former Socialist leader François Hollande scored a sweeping victory in France's first "open" presidential primary of the Left last night.
Mr Hollande, 57, became clear favourite to defeat the unpopular President Nicolas Sarkozy next spring with a convincing victory – estimated at 56 to 44 per cent – over the Socialist party leader Martine Aubry. Almost as impressive as the size of his victory was the high turn-out – approaching 3,000,000 people – in the first candidate selection process in France to be thrown open to the entire electorate.
Mr Hollande, likeable, humorous and competent rather than charismatic or inspiring, must first try to heal some of the wounds opened by an often vicious second round primary campaign. Ms Aubry, runner up to Mr Hollande in the first round last Sunday, turned what was supposed to be a fraternal election into a Punch and Judy show in its final days. She seamlessly reverted to her role as party first secretary last night, welcoming the victorious Mr Hollande to a festive crowd at party headquarters and calling on Socialists to "rally around our candidate".
Hollande supporters may not be so willing instantly to forgive and forget. She had earlier accused Mr Hollande, of being "soft", "vague" and "insincere" and being the "candidate manufactured by the establishment". His supporters had accused Ms Aubry of "using the language of the far right" and "skidding completely out of control".
Arguably, her aggressive approach might yet help Mr Hollande. By contesting the primary to the end, she transformed last night into a mini-presidential election, giving Mr Hollande a kind of presidential aura.
In his victory speech, Mr Hollande said that he wanted to bring France once again "under the spell of the French dream". He wanted to recapture the spirit which "made successive generations of the Republic believe in egality and progress." To become the first left-wing president since 1995, Mr Hollande must calm crisis-generated fears and exploit the yearning for a new, more consensual leadership in France. He has promised, like Tony Blair in 1997, to make education his first priority. He has yet to make bold Blair-like claims to have reinvented centre-left politics.
François Hollande has campaigned mostly as a soothing "antidote to Sarkozy", promising to be a "normal" president who would govern quietly and with decorum in the best interests of middle and working-class French people. He says that he will abolish the 8 per cent state budget deficit within five years without dismantling the welfare state. He has pledged to abolish tax concessions to the rich and increase some taxes but has not identified any significant cuts in state spending.
Mr Hollande is a convinced European who believes that the eurozone debt crisis has revealed the need for a stronger and simpler, decision making process within a hard core of EU countries led by France and Germany.
He won at least partial endorsements from all four of the candidates eliminated last weekend, including his estranged former partner, Ségolène Royal.
In recent days, last weekend's runner up, Ms Aubry, 60, has launched a series of attacks on Mr Hollande's most obvious weaknesses. She has criticised his dull personality and the vagueness of many of his policy positions. She has pointed out that, in 30 years in politics, Mr Hollande has never held even a junior ministerial position.
Most damaging of all, in a country always keen to lynch its elite, Ms Aubry has suggested that Mr Hollande is the candidate of the media and political "establishment". A Hollande aide retorted by awarding Ms Aubry the "Le Pen prize" for political vituperation.
Vox populi: 'For the first time in France: real democracy'
Daniel Thieblins, 74
"This is real democracy. For the first time in France, it is the people who are choosing a candidate not the party machine. I came here to vote against Martine Aubry. I never did like her. She is too aggressive, too sectarian. We need somebody who can bring us together."
Anne-Charlotte Bouvet, 34, Business Consultant
"It is possible that I will vote for [Nicolas Sarkozy] again. But the problems facing the country are so great that I think that it is important we have a credible alternative candidate, with a solid programme, next year. That's why I was delighted to choose the Socialist candidate, even though I'm not a Socialist."
Michelle Lecomte, 79
"I never thought I would see a primary like this in France. But why should the foreigners keep all the good ideas? I voted for Martine Aubry. I am 80 next month and I want to see a woman president of the Republic before I die."
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