French Socialists Present United Front at Pre-Election Congress
France's ruling Socialist Party (PS) opened its three-yearly national congress Friday, promising to inject itself with new momentum to see it to victory in a series of elections in the next year and a half.
Delegates gathered in the southeastern city of Grenoble for three days of debates under the slogan "Working for a fairer France," to culminate Sunday in a speech from Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.
With attention focussed on the electoral timetable -- local polls in March are followed by legislative and presidentials in 2002 -- the emphasis was on unity, with little chance of the public squabbles that have marred previous conferences.
However behind the scenes there was ill-concealed hostility between the left and liberal wings of the party, and some commentators warned the party risks losing touch with its supporters.
The party is in a strong position after three-and-a-half years of coalition government with the Greens and Communists. The economy is growing at 3.3 percent, unemployment has fallen to 9.7 percent, and the right-wing opposition is badly divided.
Despite recent scrapes over high oil prices and mad cow disease, opinion polls continue to put Jospin neck-and-neck with Gaullist President Jacques Chirac, with around 50 percent support each.
And according to a survey by the polling firm Sofres, the Socialists are the most popular party in the country, with 55 percent of people having a "good opinion," over 48 percent for the Greens and 34 percent for Chirac's RPR.
Party Secretary Francois Hollande, who is certain to be re-elected to a new three-year term, told Liberation newspaper Friday that most of the targets the party set itself when it came to power in 1997 had been met.
These included a reduced 35 hour working week, a form of state-recognized union for gay couples and steps to promote women in public life. "Now we must set our sights on full employment, sharing out the fruits of economic growth, and spreading the benefits of citizenship," he said.
However if the Socialists are riding high, they cannot deny a deep rift between two ends of the party, with the left -- under former party secretary Henri Emmanuelli -- suspicious of the liberalizing instincts of Finance Minister Laurent Fabius, himself a former prime minister.
In recent weeks Fabius has made no secret of his frustration at the finance ministry, where his attempts to bring down this year's budget deficit have been thwarted by promises of hand-outs to lobby groups.
His 2001 budget, including a symbolic reduction in tax for high-earners, was regarded with disfavor by the left of the party, who were embarrassed in a parliamentary vote last month when the Communists and Greens expressed their opposition by abstaining.
Some analysts also drew attention to an underlying fragility in Socialist party support. "The main question is why the party isn't drawing more benefits from the success of the government," said Jerome Jaffre in Le Monde newspaper Friday.
According to Jaffre, Jospin's support is highest among the better paid and better educated.
While the poorer classes were suspicious of many Socialist policies, such as support for Europe and a tolerant line on immigration, the better-off could also start to desert him if he failed to take bolder steps to modernize the economy, Jaffre said -- PARIS (AFP)
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