Royal stakes her claim to lead Socialists

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After a two-month absence, Ségolène Royal, the defeated French presidential candidate, returned to the political fray on Saturday to stake her claim to lead the Socialist party.

The 53-year-old, who has made no secret of her desire to replace her former companion François Hollande as party head, said she had returned from her holiday a “new woman”.

She promised to apply lessons learned from her electorial defeat to breathe new life into her floundering party and argued that a “profound renovation” of the party’s methods and ideas was needed.

“The Socialist party of the 21st century must be at once a place of knowledge, deliberation and development and at the same time a tool of collective combat,” she told supporters during a speech in Melle, a city in the western Poitou Charente region where she is president.

She said the Socialists failed to make it clear they were not opposed to the market economy during the campaign.

“The market economy is the framework for our action and our reflection, and if we must write that down, let’s write it once and for all,” she said.

Ms Royal spoke ahead of the Socialist party meeting next weekend in La Rochelle, western France. There, members will try and pick up the pieces following its third consecutive presidential election defeat in May.

Bernard Kouchner, a prominent Socialist who crossed party lines to become President Nicolas Sarkozy’s new foreign minister, gave a blunt assessment of the party’s health in an interview with Le Parisien newspaper on Sunday, saying it was dominated by arrogant “monomaniacs”.

“We need a strong left, an alternative, but I’m fed up with the permanent criticism and I don’t say that because I’m in the government,” he said. “I’m fed up with the false, petty civil war.”

“The state of the Socialist party makes me sad,” he said. “But it probably needs to go through this bitter and not very exhilarating phase in order for a more responsible Left to emerge. I wish them luck.”

An LH2 poll last week found almost a third of French voters think Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former finance minister who is now the leading candidate to take charge of the International Monetary Fund, candidate, would be the best leader for the party.

Ms Royal came in second with 15 per cent.

Meanwhile, an opinion poll on Saturday for newspaper Journal du Dimanche showed Mr Sarkozy as popular as ever, with 75 per cent support.

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