September 21, 2011 4:51 pm

French Socialists jostle for position

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Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, this week declared he was “a candidate for nothing”.

But a few simple comments, uttered in his first public interview since the sex scandal that cost him his political career, have put Mr Strauss-Kahn back at centre stage this week in the race for France’s presidential election next year.

Not as a contender, perhaps. Rather, as a reminder to left-wing voters of what might have been had Mr Strauss-Kahn not been caught up in allegations of sexual assault in New York – charges now abandoned and which he always denied.

“People wanted to see a match between Dominique Strauss-Kahn and President Nicolas Sarkozy,” says Manuel Valls, the Socialist mayor of Évry who is one of six candidates for the party’s presidential nomination. “But Strauss-Kahn is no longer there and now they will have to take the one they think is closest to him.”

The problem is that there is hardly any difference between the two main challengers for the party’s nomination, Socialist leader Martine Aubry and her predecessor François Hollande. Both are committed to an election manifesto agreed by the party this summer, carefully crafted to offend neither traditionalists nor reformists. Now the current economic crisis has rendered the manifesto substantially irrelevant.

Worse, in a near three-hour debate last week, all six candidates appeared reluctant to engage arms, for fear of reviving the impression of a divided party that has been out of power for almost 15 years.

The Socialists, who will vote on their candidate next month, are still leading in the opinion polls seven months ahead of the presidential election. But without any clear differences of policy, there appears to be a lack of enthusiasm for the contenders that risks weakening any lead as voting day nears.

“The challenge now is to create an enthusiasm for a candidate and his or her proposals and not only rely on a mechanical sanction vote against the power in place,” says Jérôme Fourquet of polling group Ifop. “They have to show they can involve more voters.”

There is no doubt that there is an appetite for an alternative to the centre-right Mr Sarkozy. The debate on prime-time television drew almost 5m viewers, the second biggest audience for a political broadcast after the president’s February address to the nation. The figures confirm that interest in the Socialist primary goes well beyond its membership.

But polls immediately afterwards showed that if anything, the mainstream contenders had lost votes to the fringes on the left and right, where the differences are more obvious.

Mr Hollande – so far the favourite to beat Mr Sarkozy thanks to his Strass-Kahnian appeal to centrist voters – saw his support fall back after the lacklustre debate. Ms Aubry and Ségolène Royal, the party’s candidate in 2007, also lost points.

Voting intentions rose for Mr Valls, an iconoclast on the right of the party, and his anti-globalisation counterpart on the left, Arnaud Montebourg, though both remain rank outsiders.

Meanwhile, Ms Aubry’s position has been undermined by Mr Strauss-Kahn’s intervention on Sunday night. The former IMF boss confirmed that he and Ms Aubry had struck a deal not to run against each other for the party’s nomination, the so-called pact of Marrakesh. The pact has always been denied by Ms Aubry. “In one sentence he seriously weakened her,” says Mr Fourquet.

The question is whether Mr Strauss-Kahn let loose his missile deliberately, in revenge for Ms Aubry’s attempt to distance herself from him during the US scandal. Or was it simply a comment confirming, en passant, what most suspected already? Either way she will now find it hard to convince the electorate that she is not merely a candidate by default.

Next week, the party’s six hopefuls meet for their second prime-time televised debate. This time, either the gloves have to come off to convince voters that the candidates really want the job, or the political choices will have to be more stark. Otherwise French voters will be tempted to take their ballots elsewhere.

“We have to tell people where we are going,” says the reformist Mr Valls. “We have to put life into the campaign but that does not have to mean dogma.”

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