Left wing seeks a saviour to catch Sarkozy

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The Independent Online

The French Socialist leader, François Hollande, warned party members yesterday that they faced a "long march" before the Left could hope to recapture France from the "emotional" spell of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Delegates to the party's "summer university" in La Rochelle – meeting under the clouds of electoral defeat and poisonous hatreds between party leaders – largely accepted his grim forecast.

But an unanswered question remained. Who could best lead the Socialists on their trek through the desert of Sarkozyland? Should it be M. Hollande himself? Should it be his estranged former partner, the defeated presidential candidate Ségolène Royal? Should it be Bertrand Delanoe, the Mayor of Paris, who stole the conference with a combative speech? Or should it be a new, younger Socialist Saviour, as yet undiscovered?

Whether party members wanted it or not – and most didn't – the break-up of the Royal-Hollande "marriage" and political partnership dominated much of the media coverage of the first large Socialist conference since the April-May elections. Mme Royal and M. Hollande have not been seen together in public since their 25-year unmarried partnership officially ended in June. The couple's political ambitions, so long running in parallel, are now reckoned to be on a collision course. Both have ambitions to become the Socialists' de facto presidential candidate in waiting.

The couple, or ex-couple, spent the first two days of the conference dodging each other. Photographers and cameramen were systematically denied the much desired shot of a Royal-Hollande meeting, or Royal-Hollande snub.

When Mme Royal spoke on Saturday morning, M. Hollande was not on the platform but listening outside the room. When M. Hollande gave the closing speech yesterday afternoon, Mme Royal had already gone home.

The deep chill between M. Hollande, the party's first secretary, and Mme Royal, defeated presidential candidate, is only one of the Socialists' problems. The party has been deeply shaken, even humiliated, by a series of defections of senior and less-senior figures to President Sarkozy's government, or to a wider series of presidential appointments.

Several senior party leaders – or "elephants" in Socialist jargon – failed to attend the La Rochelle conference. Bernard Kouchner, now M. Sarkozy's Foreign minister, and Jack Lang, in charge of a presidential commission on institutional change, felt unwelcome or frozen out. Martine Aubry and Dominique Strauss-Kahn chose not to attend.

M. Hollande put a brave face on these absences, saying that he could give President Sarkozy a list of other figures that the Socialists could also do better without. His closing speech was, however, a sombre one.

The Socialist party was no longer "heard by the majority of French people", he said, because they no longer say anything "clear, simple or understandable". He added: "We are in a permanent state of bad conscience, a permanent balancing act, a state of neither-nor, or looking for incantatory forms of words which seem to prepare people for compromise with reality."

To break the spell of Sarkozyism – "based always on appeal to the emotional" – the Socialists must find a way of reconciling their fundamental beliefs with the modern world, he said. "We don't have to abandon our values to be modern." This was the nearest he came to criticising directly the campaign of Mme Royal.

But the loudest cheers of the weekend went to M. Delanoe, who, at 56, is older than both M. Hollande and Mme Royal, both 53. He is also a declared homosexual, which is regarded by some party members as an insuperable electoral handicap in provincial France.

Asked about his ambitions, M. Delanoe said he was "candidate to be nothing, but could be candidate for several things".

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