French left united in shock over poll crisis

FRENCH Socialist leaders have produced a rare public display of unity as they struggle to respond to the sexual assault case against their favoured candidate for the 2012 election, Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Party chief Martine Aubry yesterday acknowledged the left had been knocked sideways by Strauss-Kahn's arrest at the weekend on charges that he tried to rape a maid at a luxury New York hotel, but promised the Socialists would be ready for the presidential battle.

With a July deadline fast approaching to enter the Socialist selection contest, Ms Aubry urged the party to pull together, look beyond the scandal and focus on the presidential race.

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"Unity, responsibility, combativeness, these are the three words which came up the most this morning," she told reporters after the meeting of the party leadership in Paris.

"There was emotion, of course, and the shock we all feel, but it is our responsibility to be up to the task. I say to the French people: we will be ready in 2012."

Until this weekend, Strauss-Kahn appeared to be the clear frontrunner to win the election and unseat conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Opinion polls have put Mr Sarkozy in third place, behind the far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Many Socialists voiced outrage at the fact Strauss-Kahn was paraded, handcuffed and unshaven, before cameras in New York before having a chance to defend himself on charges of attempted rape.

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Strauss-Kahn's plight has heaped pressure on Ms Aubry to throw her hat into the ring and rescue the left's dream of a presidential victory for the first time in a quarter of a century. But her reluctance has led some to question her appetite for the battle.

"We have a timetable and today is not the moment" to declare a candidacy, she told France Info radio. "We are not changing anything in our timetable" for the primary.

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Ms Le Pen - who is gaining support as she plays on gloom over falling purchasing power and tension over immigrants - stands to gain a point or two from the scandal.

Mr Sarkozy could see a similar lift, and his campaign will still focus on beating her in round one so he can face the left in a run-off.

"Sarkozy only benefits marginally from Strauss-Kahn's arrest," said Eurasia Group analyst Antonio Barroso, noting he would still suffer from centrists defecting from his camp.

With Strauss-Kahn out of the picture, the left's chances of re-election would rest on former party leader Franois Hollande and Ms Aubry, both veteran left-wing figures with a strong support base, but who may lack the sparkle and sophistication to rally the vote they need.

Ms Aubry, 60, was the architect of France's 35-hour work week in the late 1990s and has political clout as the daughter of former European Commission president Jacques Delors.

She has support from party militants but is an uncharismatic campaigner and may struggle to find ways to fire up left-wing voters. She has also struggled as party chief to unite a party riven by divisions since its 2007 election defeat by Mr Sarkozy.

Mr Hollande, 56, has a weak profile, as he has never been a government minister and lacks international experience.

But in Strauss-Kahn's absence he would be the favourite to run, and is judged to have better campaigning skills than Ms Aubry.

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He would also outshine his former partner Segolne Royal, who lost the 2007 presidency for the left but plans another try.

An opinion poll for Le Parisien, conducted on Sunday and Monday - the first survey since Strauss-Kahn's arrest - found Mr Hollande could win 49 per cent backing in the party primary to Ms Aubry's 23 per cent.

Other potential candidates are former prime minister Laurent Fabius and Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe.