The former French prime minister, Lionel Jospin, stood aside from next year's presidential race yesterday, while sticking out a foot to try to trip the likely Socialist contender, Ségolène Royal.
In a rather churlish "second" retirement from front-line French politics, M. Jospin, 69, admitted that he had failed to inspire Socialist supporters since he announced, tearfully, last month that he may run. But M. Jospin made it clear he would continue to oppose Mme Royal, who is the runaway favourite in the opinion polls to become the first woman to represent a leading party in a French presidential election.
He accused her of surfing on public opinion and taking liberties with left-wing dogma, rather than slogging through the normal channels to capture the Socialist nomination.
But M. Jospin's statement makes it more likely that Mme Royal, 53 last week, will be selected by the 200,000 Socialist Party members when they vote on 16 November. At least two, and possibly three, other candidates are expected to enter the race when official declarations open tomorrow. They are the former prime minister Laurent Fabius (representing the left), the former finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn (representing the traditional centre-left) and the former education and culture minister Jack Lang (representing himself).
Mme Royal, a former environment and education minister, and president of the Poitou-Charentes region, has a commanding lead in all public and internal polls of Socialist sympathisers. She has attracted a series of important endorsements in the past few days, including a ringing vote of confidence from one of the elder statesmen of the party, the former prime minister and mayor of Lille, Pierre Mauroy.
Opinion polls also suggest that Mme Royal is the only Socialist remotely capable of defeating the near-certain champion of the centre-right, the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, in the two-round presidential election on 22 April and 6 May.
Mme Royal's opponents in the party accuse her of adopting a series of vague, opinion-pleasing positions on issues from crime to education to economic policy. They resent the way that she has campaigned as an "outsider", appealing directly to public opinion through the television, glossy magazines and the internet, rather than to party members.
Mme Royal is, they protest, a classic party insider, who has lived with the Socialist Party leader, or first secretary, Francois Hollande, for 25 years. M. Hollande's failure to enter the race has also caused annoyance to leading Socialists, including M. Jospin. They accuse him of preparing the ground for his "wife".
M. Jospin announced his retirement after his humiliating defeat in the first round of the presidential election in 2002. He had been under pressure from some senior Socialist figures to join the race as the "anyone-but-Ségolène" candidate.
In the past four weeks, M. Jospin has unsuccessfully attempted to persuade other candidates, such as M. Fabius and M. Strauss-Kahn, to stand down in his favour. He has also, despite an initial surge, failed to close the gap on Mme Royal in the opinion polls.
Socialist Party grass-roots members seem to be less opposed to Mme Royal's "anti-party" campaign. This has - to M. Jospin's fury - been Mme Royal's strategy. She has circumnavigated the anti-establishment and anti-party mood in France by appealing directly to the electorate. By taking a runaway lead in the polls, she has made herself the obvious candidate for the party.
Another former prime minister, M. Mauroy, 78, saluted Mme Royal's strategic brilliance. Most Socialist Party members were, he said, "strongly inclined" to add their voices to the "vast popular movement" which she generated. "It would," he said "be irresponsible and dangerous [for leading party figures] to refuse to accept this reality."Reuse content