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Fragile French left holds fractious debate ahead of primary vote

A terse two-and-a-half hour debate between France's seven left-wing candidates exposed deep divisions ahead of presidential primaries. Socialist Ex-Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg was declared the tentative "winner."

The beleaguered French left held its first televised debate on Thursday ahead of next month's primary vote to chose who will represent the Socialist party in presidential elections. Polls suggested that former Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg was narrowly viewed as the winner of a tense debate that illustrated how fractured the party has become.

Ex-Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that the Socialists needed to show France that "the left is still useful." Although Valls has the most government experience, surveys show that he faces fierce competition from Montebourg and from Benoit Hamon. The latter is a former member of the administration of current President Francois Hollande, himself a Socialist, who has gone on to be highly critical of both Hollande and Valls.

Hamon was not the only one decrying the rule of France's current leader in the dense two and a half hour debate. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, - a high-profile Socialist voice currently serving as Paris mayor but not a presidential candidate - called Hollande's four years in office as an "immense waste."

Uncertain future

Things are looking grim for the French left. Polls show that were the election to be held today, the Socialists would come in a humiliating fifth place.

The party is lagging behind two former Socialists who have since broken with the leftists and decided to run as independents. One is Hollande's former protege Emmanuel Macron, also an ex-economy minister, who is currently polling in third behind center-right Republican candidate Francois Fillon and far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

Towards the end of the Socialists' debate, "winner" Montebourg cautioned the left-wing against abandoning hope that progressivism could prevail in France.

"We can win it in four months," he said optimistically, "our biggest enemy is defeatism."

The primary for the Socialist Party will take place on January 22, with a run-off planned for January 29 if necessary. Valls is expected to win the nomination by a small margin.

es/kl (AFP, Reuters)

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