France Socialists challenge Sarkozy on security

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France's opposition Socialists on Sunday launched their battle for the 2012 presidential election with an attack on President Nicolas Sarkozy's controversial crime crackdown.

With the party riding high in the electoral polls, its leader Martine Aubry moved to seize the initiative from Sarkozy, who is suffering record-low popularity and international criticism for crime measures targeting immigrants.

"We will be ready for 2012 and we will not disappoint," Aubry told thousands of supporters in her closing speech at the gathering in the western seaside town of La Rochelle, promising a "credible alternative" to Sarkozy in 2012.

The conference lacked one of the party's highest-profile members however: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who is based in Washington as head of the International Monetary Fund.

A poll by TNS-Sofres Logica last week showed that Strauss-Kahn would beat Sarkozy in a presidential election by a wide margin of 59 to 41 percent in the second round under France's run-off system.

The poll also showed Aubry would beat the right-wing Sarkozy 53 to 47 percent in a second-round vote if she were the party's presidential candidate.

As part of Sarkozy's "war on crime" spurred by urban violence, authorities have in recent weeks been clearing Roma Gypsies out of illegal camps and deporting them, drawing accusations of racism and stigmatisation.

The Socialists have been reluctant to get drawn into a debate on the sensitive issues of crime and immigration, while the right has accused them of lacking a coherent security strategy.

On Sunday Aubry, who has not yet formally declared a presidential bid, vowed the Socialists would draw up their own line on security against what she called Sarkozy's "complete failure".

"The president of the republic has chosen controversy. We choose policy. The government has blown on the embers -- we want to put them out," she said, branding the expulsions of Roma "disgraceful".

Aubry said the Socialists' own security policies, to be announced in detail in October, would focus on preventing crime, not just on punishment, and planned to boost local policing and laws on arms trafficking.

Laying into Sarkozy, she also slammed the "shamefulness of his friends" -- an apparent reference to a scandal linking the government to Liliane Bettencourt, the billionaire heiress of the L'Oreal cosmetics empire.

"This is not a presidency -- it's an ordeal," Aubry said.

France has not had a Socialist president since 1995, when Francois Mitterrand was succeeded by Jacques Chirac.

A study by pollster Viavoice last week said 55 percent of French people wanted a left-wing candidate to win the 2012 election, but 57 percent judged that in power the left would "do no better than the right".

© 2010 AFP

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