World Focus: Fiery Aubry seeks to cool Socialist civil war

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The Independent Online

The shattered French Socialist party needs a charismatic healer, a bridge-builder, a Gallic Obama. They have elected, finally, as their new leader, a tough and brilliant woman, whose sharp tongue and wicked humour infuriates her enemies and terrify her friends.

Even her father, the former European Commission President, Jacques Delors, and even her political mentor, the former prime minister, Pierre Mauroy, are wary of the temper – and temperament – of Martine Aubry.

After a laborious recount and threats of legal action and party schisms, Mme Aubry, 58, has defeated the former presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, by just 102 of the 135,000 votes cast by Socialist "militants" last Friday for a new First Secretary.

It will therefore be Mme Aubry – the mayor of Lille, the mother of the 35-hour working week – who will follow in linear succession to, inter alia, the late President François Mitterrand and the former prime minister Lionel Jospin as the head of France's centre-left "party of government".

If France was any other European country, Mme Aubry would be regarded as the probable main challenger to President Nicolas Sarkozy at the next presidential election in 2012. In France, and especially in the Parti Socialiste, nothing is so simple.

Mme Royal, 55, who had previously accused the Aubry camp of cheating, accepted the recounted decision with haughty gracelesness yesterday. In a video statement on the internet (which failed to mention Mme Aubry by name) the former presidential candidate proclaimed herself a future presidential candidate. "2012 is tomorrow," she said. "You can count on me to give everything for the cause." But what cause? Significantly, the video clip made more references to Mme Royal's private support group, "Désirs d'Avenir", than it did to the Parti Socialiste.

Mme Aubry pledged to bring together the party's warring barons, and baronesses, in a "rejuvenated" party, that would address the concerns of voters, not careerist politicians.

Good luck to her. France, and Europe, need a functioning, forward-looking Parti Socialiste as the bedrock of a democratic centre-left in the third largest European economy. Mme Aubry's early career, as a business executive and moderate social democrat, suggests she might be the person to reconcile the party's values with the constraints of the modern world. Her more recent career – as the creator of a fiendishly bureaucratic 35-hour week and a left-wing sloganeer – suggest that Mme Aubry is the standard-bearer of the party's past, not its future.

As First Secretary, the sharp-tongued Mme Aubry will have as much trouble with her friends as she will have with her avowed enemies. Her camp includes two men who believe that they have a better claim than her to be the candidate in 2012: the former prime minister, Laurent Fabius and the former finance minister, now head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

In other words, Mme Royal, in narrow defeat, may be better placed to campaign for 2012 than Mme Aubry in narrow victory. Whether Mme Royal will do so from inside or outside the Parti Socialiste remains open to question.