Socialist calls for US-style primaries in French ballot

Party calls for change to halt its disintegration and tackle 'Sarkozyisme'
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An American-style primary election open to all French voters will be organised by the Parti Socialiste (PS), the main opposition party, to pick the man or woman who will challenge President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012.

The principle of an "open primary" was embraced yesterday by the socialist leader, Martine Aubry, in an attempt to bind together a party which has looked to be on the point of disintegration in recent months.

"To reinvent democracy we must make profound changes to the habits and political rules of our own party," she wrote in Le Monde newspaper.

Several poisonous issues in her party remain unresolved, however, and will enliven – or embitter – public and private debate at the PS annual congress, or "summer university", which starts today in at La Rochelle.

Opinion is divided about whether the primary, to be held in spring 2011, should be open to all left-wing politicians – socialists, communists, greens and centrists – or limited to leaders of the main centre-left party.

There is also deep division within the PS on how to respond to flirtatious signals from the anti-Sarkozy centrist party, the Mouvement Democrate or Modem, which was created and is led by the former presidential candidate, François Bayrou.

Should the centrists be included in the new open primary and future electoral alliances? If so, the rump of the once-powerful Communist Party and other harder left groups may refuse to take part.

Overall, Ms Aubry's announcement in an opinion article in Le Monde was welcomed by leading Socialists and party sympathisers as a sign that the PS had abandoned its apparent death wish and was ready to re-build to face the challenge of "Sarkozyisme".

Several Socialist leaders, including the former presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, argue that an open primary is needed to "reconnect" a perennially feuding and inward-looking party with the French electorate.

One of the party's younger barons, Arnaud Montebourg, had threatened to quit the party unless the open primary system was accepted.

Ms Aubry, while in favour of the idea, had delayed a decision to mollify opponents, including the Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe and the former finance minister, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, now the chief of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Opinion polls put Mr Strauss-Kahn as the favourite to lead the Socialists into the 2012 election. As the IMF boss, he cannot take part in French politics and a primary campaign starting as early as autumn next year would place him in an awkward position. Yesterday's announcement is therefore a tactical victory for other likely candidates including Ms Royal and 40-something leaders such as Mr Montebourg.

Ms Aubry, the former employment minister and Mayor of Lille, defeated Ms Royal to become the socialist party's first secretary this year. The political scientist and PS expert, Gérard Grunberg, said Ms Aubry's decision was a "serious and important step".

"No one can say any more that the Parti Socialiste is immobile," he said. "This could, in time, transform not only the party, but the wider left and even our political system."