French Socialists fail to agree on new leader

France's opposition Socialists slid deeper into disarray Sunday after they failed to agree on a new leader and a platform to build a challenge to right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy, AFP reported.

Segolene Royal, who lost to Sarkozy in elections 18 months ago, accused her rivals of clinging to "outdated" ways after they refused to rally behind her leadership bid at a three-day party congress.

It was now up to party members to decide on their new leader during a vote on Thursday, with Royal facing off against Martine Aubry, a former labour minister and architect of the 35-hour work week and a third contender.

"Party members will now have their say," Royal said after talks on finding a consensus candidate collapsed in the early hours on Sunday.

"They will have to choose between a return to outdated methods or a new Socialist Party."

Delegates at the congress in Reims, the capital of the Champagne region, had hoped to unite behind a single candidate who would then be endorsed by the rank-and file.

But after drawn-out negotiations, no leader emerged with majority support.

"The Socialist Party is gravely ill," declared Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, who for months was considered a strong contender but was forced to bow out of the race after failing to garner enough support.

Royal, the 55-year-old president of the Poitou-Charente regional council, promised to renew the left by opening debate on a possible alliance with centrists, a stance fiercely opposed by the old guard.

While Royal could still win the vote on Thursday, her ability to lead would be badly crippled without the support of the party's barons and the bickering was expected to continue.

The Reims congress was seen as a last chance for the Socialists to put an end to squabbling and get to work on restoring their credibility under a new leader before the 2012 presidential vote.

But the main opposition party failed to unite, raising the prospect that no strong leader would emerge to challenge Sarkozy whose approval ratings have recently improved with his high-profile presidency of the European Union.

Royal was to face off on Thursday against Aubry, 58, the mayor of Lille and daughter of former European Commission president Jacques Delors, and 41-year-old Euro-MP Benoit Hamon, who has pushed a leftist platform.

A fierce Royal opponent, Aubry warned fellow party members that the French electorate could turn their backs on the Socialists once and for all if they failed to get their act together.

"The French people don't hate us, but we have let them down," she said Saturday. "We could perhaps be facing the end of the Socialist Party."

Royal's candidacy was propelled by her first-place showing in a vote by party members earlier this month in which her manifesto won nearly 30 percent of the vote, ahead of Delanoe and four other contenders.

The Socialist Party members will be choosing a successor to Francois Hollande, Royal's former partner and father of her four children, who sided with Delanoe during the leadership contest.

"It just couldn't be worse," commented Gerard Grunberg, an expert on the Socialist Party at the Cevipof think tank.

"As long as the Socialists do not have a leader or a clear party line, it will continue to be inward-looking. Its capacity to wage an offensive is in jeopardy."

The party congress was held amid much concern over the global economic crisis, with former prime minister Laurent Fabius warning that 300,000 jobs were at stake in France.

"This is an economic and social horror. We need to be ready for it," said Fabius.

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