No killer blows in French Socialists final primary debate
The two remaining candidates for the French Socialist Party's presidential nomination fought a tense but inconclusive final televised debate on Wednesday, leaving themselves locked in a tight race.
While the exchange remained civil, it was terse and Martine Aubry attacked Francois Hollande's lack of ministerial experience and implied that he was not up to the challenge of taking on and defeating President Nicolas Sarkozy.
But Hollande kept his cool, defended his record as a campaigner and said he would be able to represent a new generation and renew French public life.
"Faced with the hard right, faced with a tenacious crisis, we need a strong left ... to call the banks to order, to switch to a green economy and get us out of nuclear power," Aubry declared in the opening exchanges.
"I don't want a hard left," retorted Hollande, promising to rally voters. "We're just coming out of five years of a brutal presidency. Should we have a divisive candidacy? I don't want that. We need a solid left."
Aubry, the 61-year-old mayor of the northern city of Lille, is a former labour minister who introduced France's 35-hour week.
Hollande, 57, is former party leader and lawmaker who has never held high office, but is riding high in the polls.
He won the first round of the primary vote on Sunday with 39 percent, and has been endorsed by three of the four defeated candidates, including his former partner, the defeated 2007 presidential candidate Segolene Royal.
Aubry came in second on 31 percent, but is expected to pick up many of the votes cast for the third place challenger Arnaud Montebourg, who won a surprise 17 percent on a platform of protectionism and market regulation.
The journalists moderating the debate attempted to draw out policy differences between the two, but they were remarkably similar in their responses to France's economic crisis and social challenges.
The clear tensions beneath the surface came closer the surface when issues of leadership style and experience came up, and Aubry struck some blows without really knocking Hollande off his rhythm.
"I have always had friendly and frank relations with Francois, and we'll see that tonight," said Aubry, before refusing an opportunity to promise him a place in any future government should she win.
"A president should have a younger prime minister, to prepare the future," she said. "I'm candidate for the presidency, you need great experience."
"I'm younger than Martine," Hollande shot back, nettled by her repeated digs at his lack of a ministerial record. "The choice of a prime minister should be made during the presidential campaign. It's not a deal you make."
Both agreed they would campaign for the other to ensure that the left beats Sarkozy's centre-right camp, but there was no sign of any affection between the two, and Aubry at times appeared to lecture Hollande.
They clashed inconclusively over the figures for Hollande's plan to recruit 60,000 teachers, but for the most part it was a contest to appear who could be the most credible proponent of the Socialists' agreed platform.
The run-off takes place at 10,000 polling stations across France on Sunday and stakes are high. Opinion polls suggest either leading Socialist candidate would beat Sarkozy in next April's presidential election.
And the primary itself -- the first time a French party has held a US-style open vote to choose a standard bearer -- has boosted the left, mobilising their base, dominating media coverage and drawing 2.7 million to the polls.
For it to serve as a springboard, the remaining candidates will have to get to Sunday without publicly demolishing the other, so that the party can unite around whichever wins and begin the campaign against Sarkozy.
The right has been scathing about the poll, attempting to play down the greater than expected turnout, questioning the voting criteria and insisting the debate only underlines the divisions in the left-wing camp.
But most independent observers say the exercise has been a success, so far.
Opinion polls still predict a narrow victory for Hollande, the long-standing frontrunner, but the same pollsters overestimated his support and underplayed that of Aubry and Montebourg before the last vote.
© 2011 AFP