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French Socialists Get Shot Of Momentum As They Choose Sarkozy's Challenger

Analysis: the first-ever open Socialist party primary has injected new life into France's center-left opposition. But of the two candidates who survived for next Sunday's runoff, François Hollande and Martine Aubry, whoever emerges faces

Aubry and Hollande are set to face off for the chance to challenge Sarkozy
Aubry and Hollande are set to face off for the chance to challenge Sarkozy

PARIS - Jean-François Copé is a sore loser. The leader of the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement, Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling center-right party) tried to dampen enthusiasm after the success of Sunday's Socialist primary election. For the first time, voting was not restricted to party members. Although some 2.5 million people participated on Sunday, Mr Copé chose to note that "Only four out of 100 French people voted."

But it would be a mistake for the French right to underestimate the significance of such a turnout.

The primary election attracted almost 6% of the total number of registered voters, about 44.5 million. Out of the 17 million votes that the 2007 Socialist nominee Segolène Royal managed to collect, about 15% participated. In the US, for example, primary elections were introduced in 1910 and became commonplace from 1968 on, and usually mobilize between 8 and 10 % of registered voters.

So far, the Socialist Party is undoubtedly living up to its objectives and ambitions. In a country crippled by a social and economic crisis that has stirred anxiety and bitterness, and where mistrust towards its leaders is at an all-time high, the party has managed to attract the interest of leftist voters. It introduced a ground-breaking democratic innovation, by putting an end to the customary power struggles that led to the election of a single candidate.

There will be a before and after October 9, 2011. The French right itself, once it denounced a ballot that threatened "the secrecy of voting" and would only lead to a "political categorization", is actually adopting this modern kind of participatory democracy. Prime Minister François Fillon, former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, and even Mr Copé have all agreed that in 2017, the champion of the French right should be designated after a similar kind of primary contest. Former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua had already pushed for such a process back in 1994.

The Socialist primary election is a success. But it may not last long. The primary's main role was to provide its designated candidate with an almost irresistible momentum. Elected by the people, and not by the partisans, it was hoped that the candidate would start the presidential campaign a few steps ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy.

But the results of Oct. 9 don't really create that ideal scenario. Although François Hollande was the clear winner with 39% of the votes, he leaves Martine Aubry only 8 points behind, when it was thought he would triumph with an advantage of more than 20 points. Arnaud Montebourg (17%) turned out to be Sunday's genuine surprise, together with Segolène Royal's astounding collapse. Montebourg, the so-called "deglobalization" candidate, who categorized Aubry and Hollande as the "official candidates," two sides of the same coin, could now tip the balance, although his influence is debatable. A primary election is not an internal Socialist meeting.

It looks like it's going to be a delicate week ahead of next Sunday's runoff. The primary has not yet answered the Socialist Party's leadership question. Moreover, Martine Aubry and François Hollande, who at first held very similar political opinions, will now have to do battle to decide who best epitomizes "change" and "togetherness' –as well as who is the Socialist Party's best chance to defeat Nicolas Sarkozy. But they also should not let the fight weaken the party's standing compared to the right.

It looks like it's going to be a particularly open, indecisive and tight second round –at the risk of not granting its winner the credibility and momentum it promised at first.

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