France's former Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin made a tearful return to the front of the French political stage at the weekend, convincing many of his supporters that he will end his retirement and start a run for the presidency next month.
Although he did not formally declare his intention to enter the Socialist Party's "primary" this autumn, M. Jospin made a scarcely veiled attack on the runaway opinion poll favourite, Ségolène Royal.
He, in effect, accused her of trying to hijack the presidential campaign of France's leading opposition party by appealing to the media and general public, rather than to the party.
M. Jospin, 69, broke down as he explained to young socialists why he had retired from politics after a humiliating defeat in the first round of the presidential election in April 2002. The former prime minister, who has a reputation as a stiff and unemotional man, said that his low, third-place score in the first round - 17 per cent, just below the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen - had been a "cruel, sudden and unexpected" blow.
Only the first two candidates in the first round are allowed to stand in the second. "I was profoundly upset," he told the meeting of young socialists at the party's annual "summer university", or conference, in La Rochelle on Saturday. He began to reject suggestions that he had abandoned the party, in the midst of a battle, leaving colleagues to fight on alone. Tears came into his eyes and M. Jospin was unable to go on until someone handed him a glass of water. A large part of the hall stood up and applauded.
The moment was taken by many senior Socialist Party members and the French press yesterday as a symbolic and cathartic sign that M. Jospin's retirement was now at an end. The former prime minister has been under pressure from many quarters of the party to enter next year's presidential race and clip the soaring wings of Mme Royal, aformer environment and education minister.
A large banner unfurled at Saturday's meeting compared M. Jospin to the footballer Zinedine "Zizou" Zidane, who headbutted an Italian opponent during the World Cup Final in Berlin in July. The banner said: "Lionel, you departed like Zizou with a rush of blood to the head. Come back, for France's sake."
Nominations for the Socialist Party candidate for the two-round presidential election in April and May open next month. Party members will vote for their candidate on 16 November.
M. Jospin, respecting this timetable, made no formal announcement at the weekend that he planned to run, but he convinced many of his supporters that such a step was now inevitable. Bertrand Delanoë, the Mayor of Paris and a long-time friend and supporter of M. Jospin, said after the meeting: "He did us good and he did himself good."
Perhaps more significantly, M. Jospin ended his appearance with a clear attack on the darling of the opinion polls. Mme Royal, 52, is accused by opponents of adopting a mish-mash of left and right positions to build up unassailable support in public opinion. They accuse her of side-stepping the usual methods of building up grassroots support within the party, in the hope that members will be railroaded into voting for her as the candidate most likely to defeat the right.
In a carefully formulated statement on Saturday, M. Jospin said that if he did return, it would be because he had "a vision of the party, a fidelity to authentic left-wing politics and an understanding and respect for grass-roots activism".
Closing the conference yesterday, the party's first secretary, François Hollande, called for an end to the sniping and back-biting between the half-dozen possible nominees. He also warned candidates - and perhaps Mme Royal above all - that they cannot hope to win next year without the full backing of the party. M. Hollande has been Mme Royal's common-law husband for 25 years and is the father of her four children.
* LIONEL JOSPIN
After years of insisting his days of presidential campaigning were over, Lionel Jospin's lacrimose speech at La Rochelle suggested that the former prime minister will throw his hat into the ring this November in a bid to lead the Socialists. Retired since his shock defeat in the 2002 election, in which he was pushed into third place after Jacques Chirac and the far-right Jean Marie Le Pen, M. Jospin has retained considerable support in the party.
* FRANCOIS HOLLANDE
The father of Ségolène Royal's four children, Francois Hollande has been chairman of the French Socialist Party since 1997, and the party voted to retain him as leader through to the next election. His own presidential ambitions were damaged by the failure of the French to back the EU constitution, which he vociferously supported. Rumour has it that it was then that he and Mme Royal decided that she should emerge from the shadows to take his place.
* SÉGOLÈNE ROYAL
The new darling of the French media and, according to the polls, many voters as well, Mme Royal (or Sego,to her fans) has been welcomed as a breath of fresh air into the stagnant world of French politics. Currently president of the Poitou-Charentes region, she is the runaway favourite to lead the Socialists into the general election in 2007 despite the misogynist mutterings which greeted her arrival on the political scene.
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