John Lichfield: Female mud-wrestling, French style

Relations on the left are so venomous that schism seems inevitable

The French Left has devised a way to distract media attention away from President Nicolas Sarkozy – female mud-wrestling.

In the red corner, we have Martine Aubry, the Lille bruiser, who "won" the party's leadership contest by 0.05 per cent of the vote. In the white corner, we have Ségolène Royal, the Poitou hellcat, who accuses her opponent's camp of "cheating" and "stealing" victory.

No contest between the Left and Right has been fought with more invective and more dirty tricks than this riveting contest between the Centre-Left and the Centre-Left. The poisonous hatred between the two camps was apparent long before the vote of Socialist party members on Friday night split almost exactly 50-50.

The problem is not the narrowness of Friday's vote, nor the evidence of voting irregularities. Such practises have long plagued France's alternative "party of government". (As one party official explained: "In the North, there are genuine members with fake cards. In the South, there are genuine cards held by fake members.") The real problem is that personal relations between the camps have grown so venomous that a de facto schism seems inevitable. A formal split into two parties of the centre-left is unlikely in the short term. It is no longer inconceivable.

That there were irregularities in Friday's vote is certain. The nearly 80 per cent landslide for Mme Aubry in her own fiefdom around Lille was suspicious. So were some of the "block votes" for Mme Royal in the south and in the overseas departements. Only 42 out of 134,784 votes separate the two women. A Parti Socialiste (PS) task force will sift through multiple claims of errors and fraud today before the national committee meets on Tuesday night to decide whether to ratify the result.

The argument between Mme Aubry, 58, and Mme Royal, 55, is not truly ideological. Both come from the moderate wing of the party. They are divided, partly, by their visions of the future of the PS itself. Mme Royal wants to attract a younger, mass membership. She wants – as she said – a "Facebook political party", which the many, left-leaning young people in France could easily join and identify with. Her enemies say that she wants to create a personal fan club.

Mme Aubry, although she also speaks of a "new" party, is perfectly comfortable with a Parti Socialiste whose "masses" consist mostly of teachers and civil servants. She represents the social-democratic, managerial impulses of an ageing party leadership which does not want to lose its power.

Beyond all that, there is the personal contempt of Mme Aubry for Mme Royal (whom she sees as a bossy airhead with right-wing social instincts). And there is the deep personal contempt of Mme Royal for Mme Aubry (whom she sees as a sharp-tongued, and worse, badly-dressed dinosaur).

Even an undisputed First Secretary of the party would not have been guaranteed the centre-left presidential "nomination" in 2012. It is possible, despite her denials at the weekend, that Mme Royal will be tempted to play the martyr-messiah and create her own party. Either way, the real winners are likely to be a) President Sarkozy and b) Olivier Besancenot, the oily but plausible Trotskyist postman whose attempts to create a broad "anti-capitalist party" are gathering strength.

It used to be said that France had the "stupidest Right in the world". In that tradition, at least, France has moved decisively to the Left.