Socialists rally to Hollande in French opposition primary

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French Socialists rallied behind presidential hopeful Francois Hollande on Friday as he came under bitter attack from his last rival for the job of taking on President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Left-wing voters are due to turn out on Sunday for a final run-off between Hollande and Martine Aubry to choose which will represent the Socialist Party in next year's presidential election battle.

Hollande had only a narrow lead over Aubry in the first round of voting last Sunday, but since then all four of the other challengers have rallied to his banner, confirming him as favourite to win the day.

On Friday, left-wing protectionist Arnaud Montebourg became the last and most grudging convert to Hollande's cause, saying that he would vote for him personally but leave his supporters free to make their own choice.

Aubry, the former labour minister who gave France a 35-hour working week, has tacked to the left during the primary campaign, portraying Hollande as a soft-hearted centrist without the steel to defeat Sarkozy.

The tactic led to her doing better than expected in the first round, with 30 percent of the votes to Hollande's 39, and she hopes to win over many of the left-wing electors who gave Montebourg a creditable 17 percent.

But Hollande complains her attacks on him risk hurting the left as a whole, and one by one the other leading party figures have joined him in calls for unity -- even as opinion polls continue to make him the favourite.

"I thank Arnaud Montebourg for the personal decision he took to support my candidacy," Hollande told AFP. "His choice supports my drive to rally support and that will allow me to help the left win in 2012."

Hollande said he had carefully read a letter that Montebourg had sent to both him and Aubry, and had taken on board some of his supporters' concerns about the costs of globalisation and an under-regulated free market.

Aubry hit out at Montebourg, saying: "He said 'In the first round you vote for your beliefs and in the second round to be effective.' For my part, I urge all voters to vote according to their convictions in both rounds.

"Let effectiveness and conviction come together on Sunday in one vote for real change -- a vote for Martine Aubry," she said.

Before Montebourg's decision, Hollande had already received the public backing of all the other defeated first round challengers, including his former partner Segolene Royal, the left's failed 2007 presidential candidate.

Despite Aubry's attempts to paint the race as a choice between "the soft left" and the "tough left" in a battle against Sarkozy's "hard right", both she and Hollande come from the centre ground within the party.

In 1995, when the last Socialist president Francois Mitterrand left office, they were both apostles of modernising former European Commission chairman Jacques Delors -- Aubry is his daughter, Hollande his protege.

While 62-year-old Aubry is a former minister and mayor of the city of Lille, 57-year-old lawmaker and regional council chairman Hollande lacks executive experience and is seen as a party insider.

Aubry has tried to turn this to her advantage in the primary, repeatedly attacking her opponent's lack of record, but Hollande insists he is better able to represent voters seeking a change from politics as usual.

The stakes are high ahead of Sunday's vote. Opinion polls suggest that either Socialist challenger would beat Sarkozy in May's second round.


© 2011 AFP

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