Socialist leader makes early pitch to replace Sarkozy

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The French opposition leader, Martine Aubry, yesterday accused President Nicolas Sarkozy of bringing "shame" on France and "tarnishing" the values of the republic.

In the key-note speech to the "summer university", or annual conference, of the Parti Socialiste, Ms Aubry said the "brutal" expulsion of 1,000 illegal Roma immigrants from Eastern Europe in the last month was a deliberate and cynical appeal to "fear and hatred".

If a left-wing president was elected in 2012, she said, the Socialists would show that "another France is possible": one based on "effective" policies of law and order but also respect for human dignity.

The speech in La Rochelle was an important moment for Ms Aubry, who received standing ovations before and after she spoke. The Socialist Party leader, and mayor of Lille, was attempting to prove that she has the party support – and the charisma and ideas – to run against President Sarkozy in 21 months' time.

She was also trying to refute suggestions that the Socialists are an easy touch on immigration and crime. Opinion polls say the evacuation of 128 illegal Roma camps – criticised by the United Nations, amongst others – is supported by almost two-thirds of French people.

The popular favourite to defeat Mr Sarkozy is the former finance minister, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, now head of the International Monetary Fund in Washington DC. He is barred by his office from party politics and was unable to attend the three-day La Rochelle meeting.

Mr Strauss-Kahn is reported to have promised to tell Ms Aubry by the end of this year whether he intends to quit his prestigious IMF post and put his name forward. If he does so, Ms Aubry is said to have agreed not to oppose him.