Aubry enters race to challenge Sarkozy

Martine Aubry, the leader of France’s opposition Socialist party, declared her ambition on Tuesday to challenge Nicolas Sarkozy in next year’s presidential election.

The woman who as social affairs minister brought the 35-hour working week to France declared her intention to fight for the Socialist party’s nomination after weeks of hesitation that had raised concerns about her determination to become France’s first woman president.

Ms Aubry had reached a deal with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former party favourite and ex-head of the International Monetary Fund, not to run if he decided to enter the race. However, his fall from grace after being charged with assaulting a chambermaid in New York has forced the party leader to reconsider.

Ms Aubry tried to reassure nervous supporters as she launched her bid from the working class town of Lille, where she has been mayor since 2001. “Today, before you, I take the commitment to victory in 2012,” she said.

The former minister will face strong competition from François Hollande – her predecessor as party leader, who is ahead of her in the polls. Ms Aubry will also have to meet a challenge from Ségolène Royal – Mr Hollande’s former wife who was the party’s surprise candidate in 2007 and declared her bid for the nomination at the weekend.

Two others have also declared their intention to run, sparking fears that the four-month primary could deepen the divisions that have helped to keep the party out of the presidential palace since 1995.

Although polls show that either Ms Aubry or Mr Hollande would beat Mr Sarkozy in 2012, a bitter campaign could rapidly erode that lead as the election approaches.

Mr Hollande, who has been campaigning for the past year in preparation for the primary race, was again the clear leader in a weekly BVA poll on Tuesday with 52 per cent of the vote, compared with 49 per cent for Ms Aubry, though the gap has been narrowing.

Ms Aubry’s detractors suggest she is less determined and polls suggest she is seen as less presidential than the genial deputy from the rural Corrèze region.

She is also seen as being further to the left than Mr Hollande, who has won over many of the centrists who would have voted for Mr Strauss-Kahn and was even praised by Jacques Chirac, the right-of-centre former president, in his memoirs.

Party insiders said Ms Aubry was expected to try to shift that impression in an effort to appeal to the middle class and centrists disaffected with Mr Sarkozy’s style and law and order policies.

Political experts see Ms Aubry as a French Angela Merkel, a solid and consensual politician. Since becoming party leader in 2008 she has worked behind the scenes to unify her party, in preparation for the 2012 election bid.

As the daughter of Jacques Delors, the former head of the European Commission, she is seen as a pragmatic reformist. Yet she has also been hampered by the party apparatus in pursuing the modernisation of French socialism.

On pensions for example Ms Aubry was pressured into declaring that if elected president she would overturn a recent reform to raise the retirement age.

She was also forced to back down from a statement that France should consider withdrawing from nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster.

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