Disunited and deeply demoralised, the French Socialist Party today begins a three-day process to select the left's candidate for the presidency. The Socialists' ambitions have fallen so low that no one is talking about finding a candidate who will actually beat the right-wing favourite, the Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, in the first round in April. They will be satisfied with one who stands half a chance of surviving into a second round.
With the decision of Jacques Delors, the newly retired head of the European Commission, not to stand, the withdrawal after less than a week of the former culture minister Jack Lang and the disqualification - for bankruptcy - of the Radical Party's Bernard Tapie, there are only two declared presidential candidates on the left.
One is the Socialist Party leader, Henri Emmanuelli; the other a former Socialist leader and ex-education minister, Lionel Jospin. Compared with the non-candidates, they are uninspiring figures and neither has fired enthusiasm in the party or among the wider electorate.
In theory, both could stand directly for president - after all, the right will have two candidates (Mr Balladur and Jacques Chirac). For the Socialists in their current state, though, splitting their vote could be suicidal, and the party decided two weeks ago to hold a formal contest - a sort of primary election - to decide who should go forward.
So this evening, card-carrying members will vote in their departement party organisations; the votes will be counted tomorrow, and on Sunday, departement delegates will meet in Paris at an "extraordinary national congress" to vote on the final nomination. The number of delegates from each departement will be in proportion to the strength of the local organisation and their congress votes are supposed to reflect the vote at local level. The winner will be the candidate who obtains at least 50 per cent ofthe votes cast at the congress.
To the outsider there seems little to choose between Mr Emmanuelli and Mr Jospin. Both speak of placing greater emphasis on social issues, tackling unemployment without reducing wages and living standards and campaigning for social justice. Two days ago the party leadership agreed a draft election platform which proposes a "new contract for a social Republic". If that is approved on Sunday, it will any way restrict either candidate's room for manoeuvre on policies.
But the divisions in the Socialist Party derive more from personalities and personal allegiances than policies. Mr Emmanuelli and his supporters are campaigning on the theme of party unity: the party needs someone who can bring it together and preferablycount on the support of the centre-left Radical Party. Their sub-text is that by standing against the party leader, Mr Jospin is fostering division.
Mr Jospin and his supporters argue that a good party leader and a credible presidential candidate may require different qualities. Their sub-text is that Mr Jospin would give Mr Balladur and Mr Chirac a better run - a view supported by most recent opinion polls.
Mr Jospin has one further advantage: Mr Emmanuelli is supposed to go on trial at the beginning of March, charged with misusing party funds. He is widely expected to be acquitted, but, after a series of corruption scandals during the Mitterrand presidency, French voters are sensitive to charges of malpractice in high places.
Mr Emmanuelli is seen as the man for the party apparatus; Mr Jospin as likely to gain more votes among the rank-and-file. Current betting is on Mr Jospin to get the nomination. But this puts Mr Emmanuelli, who was re-elected party leader in November with87 per cent of the vote, in a difficult position.
The biggest handicap for the Socialists is the decision by Mr Delors not to stand. This has left a vacuum. With a strong national and international image, a coherent - if expensive - set of social policies derived from his work in Brussels, and the advantage of being outside the infighting for French Socialism after Mitterrand, Mr Delors was the party's dream candidate.
He would also have united the party, at least into the election, if only because he seemed to offer the Socialists a real prospect of power.
The lack of a strong Socialist candidate may make the coming "primary" less straightforward than it looks. This is the first time the party has resorted to such a form of selection and the rules are not fully clear.
The contenders Lionel Jospin: aged 57, an academic and career administrator. He was leader of the Socialist Party from 1981 and a member of parliament, becoming education minister between 1988 and 1992, when he was regarded as a reformist who gave the universities more autonomy.
Henri Emmanuelli: aged 49. Grandson of Corsican shepherd and son of electrician of Communist persuasion, born in the Pyrenees. After a political science degree, he went into banking and then politics, winning a parliamentary seat for the Landes region inthe south-west in 1972. He has been a junior minister and became Speaker of the National Assembly in 1992, but resigned the next year after being charged in a party funding scandal. He is said to be keen on bull fighting and south-west cuisine.
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