Energised French Socialists gear up to take on Sarkozy

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Energised by an unprecedented primary, France's Socialists were gearing up Monday to take on President Nicolas Sarkozy next year after lawmaker Francois Hollande secured the party's nomination.

Hollande won the party's nomination over rival Martine Aubry on Sunday with 57 percent of the vote -- a convincing mandate after France's first ever US-style open primary.

The primary galvanised the French left, drawing more than 2.8 million voters to the polls and winning widespread media coverage.

Right-wing incumbent Sarkozy is all but certain to run for re-election in next spring's presidential vote, but recent opinion polls show him on course to lose, and Hollande's victory will serve as a springboard for his challenge.

"It's a great victory for democracy," Hollande, a 57-year-old lawmaker and long-time party apparatchik, said after the vote.

"France needs a programme that will bring it back to itself," he said. "I want to be the candidate of respect and of dialogue, who brings a new definition to the presidency."

Despite some harsh talk during the primary campaign highlighting her rival's centrist leanings, Aubry did not hesitate to show party unity after the vote.

"Tonight, we rally behind our candidate," she said, welcoming her erstwhile opponent to Socialist Party headquarters to celebrate his victory.

Hollande moved quickly to cement his centrist credentials.

"We must now gather together and begin the march to the presidential election," he told supporters. "Everyone is welcome to take part in our common effort."

Hollande was widely seen as the top possible Socialist challenger to Sarkozy, with a poll released Sunday showing 69 percent of left-wing sympathisers saying he was "best placed" to take on the incumbent.

Sarkozy's camp was wrong-footed by the primary, which the president dismissed as alien to French political tradition. Some of his supporters later grudgingly admitted it had served as a good showcase for the Socialists.

But now that the presidential campaign is beginning in earnest, observers say the bespectacled Hollande, a former party leader who has never held high office, is vulnerable to charges that he lacks the necessary experience to run France.

As Monday's Le Figaro newspaper put it: "The problems for Francois Hollande start now."

Critics have accused Hollande of lacking the substance to take on Sarkozy, and the president's camp was already moving on Monday to portray the Socialist nominee as plodding and dull.

"I am glad to have him as an opponent," Henri Guaino, a special advisor to Sarkozy, said on France Inter radio. "This is someone who is extremely prudent, quite orthodox, not very bold."

Hollande had the backing of the four defeated first-round candidates and entered the run-off as favourite.

But Aubry, the 61-year-old former labour minister who gave France its 35-hour working week, mounted a tough fight, branding him a soft centrist without the steel to defeat Sarkozy.

The president's supporters picked up on that theme, with Eric Ciotti, a lawmaker with the ruling UMP, saying: "The soft and fuzzy left won, but it will be tripped up by its lack of credibility, coherence and courage."

Hollande's key task now, observers said, will be to rally France's Socialists after a primary campaign that, while largely civil, exposed long-standing divisions on the left.

The party "must be united and behind the candidate chosen by left-wing sympathisers," wrote the Liberation daily.

"Otherwise 2012 will be added to the long list of lost presidential campaigns since Francois Mitterand," it wrote, referring to France's last Socialist president, who left office in 1995.

© 2011 AFP

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