Martine Aubry: France's Merkel of the left?

28th June 2011, Comments 0 comments

Socialist leader Martine Aubry cut a modest and unassuming figure even when she announced her bid to assume one of the most powerful and high-profile jobs in Europe, that of president of France.

Sober in dress and in rhetoric, the 60-year-old mayor of Lille is at first sight an unlikely pretender to the supreme office, a job designed for Charles de Gaulle and historically dominated by larger-than-life political showmen.

Her left-wing supporters hope that, after five years of fireworks and grand-standing under President Nicolas Sarkozy, her low-key image will be popular with voters looking for a less divisive figure.

But if she is to be successful -- first in October's Socialist primary then in next year's presidential race -- she must first convince voters she really wants the job, after a lengthy wait to confirm her candidacy.

As general secretary of the Socialist Party and a respected figure on the left of the movement she ought to have been the obvious flag-bearer, but she had expected to be overshadowed by IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

When Strauss-Kahn's arrest in New York on charges of sexually assaulting a hotel maid ended his political career, Aubry's rival and predecessor as party leader, Francois Hollande, was quick to push his own candidacy.

Recent opinion polls show that both Aubry and Hollande could beat Sarkozy comfortably, but that Socialist voters would prefer the more congenial former general secretary Hollande to be their candidate.

Aubry has the support of many senior figures within the party but her 2007 victory in the internal vote to lead it came at the cost of a bitter battle with former Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal.

Both women are at pains to appear reconciled in public, but Royal is also a candidate in the primary and many of her supporters still accuse Aubry's camp of having rigged the former party vote.

And if Aubry does end up going head-to-head with Sarkozy she can expect to be attacked as a hard-left dinosaur, dour machine politician and architect of France's worker-friendly but allegedly job-killing 35-hour working week.

A minister in former prime minister Lionel Jospin's government, she shared in the humiliation of his 2002 presidential election defeat and was reduced to public tears when she subsequently lost her Lille parliamentary seat.

She fought back, however, and was re-elected mayor with a landslide 66 percent of the vote in 2008, turning the northern post-industrial city into the launch pad for a remarkable national comeback.

Her management of the town has won her respect as an executive, and her leadership of the Socialists has not been marked by the party's traditional bitter infighting, winning her a reputation as an effective leader.

This -- combined with her conservative public appearance -- has won her comparisons with Germany's admired Angela Merkel, a comparison she does nothing to discourage despite the Chancellor's right-wing views.

"We're both serious people, and she has some little problems with Nicolas Sarkozy, we're peas in a pod," Aubry once joked.

Married to Lille lawyer Jean-Louis Brochen and the mother of a grown up daughter, Clementine, from her previous marriage to Xavier Aubry, Aubry also shares Merkel's reluctance to mix family life with politics.

Aubry is the daughter of former European Commission chief Jacques Delors, another Socialist star, and shares his belief in European integration if not his modernising centre-left position.

Despite being seen as on the left of her party, she had been prepared to support the then wildly popular economic liberal Strauss-Kahn's campaign, until it so collapsed so spectacularly.

Many of Strauss-Kahn's supporters switched to her camp, but she was slow to declare her candidacy, while Hollande and Sarkozy toured the country pressing the flesh and seeking support, leading some to question her ambition.

© 2011 AFP

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