September 1, 2015 / 11:10 AM / 2 years ago

French Socialists head for election rout

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls (C) greets guests at a restaurant during the Socialist Party's "Universite d'ete" summer meeting in La Rochelle, France, August 29, 2015.Stephane Mahe

PARIS(Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande's Socialists, hit by internal divisions, splits with other left-leaning parties and his own deep unpopularity, face defeat in regional elections in December that bodes ill for their chances in the 2017 presidential race.

Meeting in La Rochelle on the west coast for its annual end-of-summer gathering last weekend under the motto "Act as one", the Socialist Party appeared everything but.

The leadership had hoped to pull all the Socialists together before the election and start patching things up with its estranged Green allies, but the meeting was shaken by a row over economics and marked by pessimism over the ballot.

"The question is not whether the regional elections will be a defeat for the Socialists but how large the defeat will be," political analyst Pascal Perrineau said.

"Opinion polls, the current atmosphere within the left and the divisions within the Socialist party all point to tough elections with a heavy defeat."

The Socialist Party (PS) has lost in every major election - local or European - since Hollande came to power in 2012.

It rules over all but one of mainland France's 22 regions, often together with the Greens. But the Greens, themselves deeply divided, have said they will go it alone this time or strike alliances with more hard-left parties, even in regions like the southeast Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur where the split would likely hand victory to the far-right National Front.

"We are worried because the National Front is strong in the region and our candidates are not very well known. And the rest of the left is going there against us, it's a real handicap," Antibes city councillor Michele Muratore said.

The PS is seen coming in in third place in the election in that region, far behind the FN, but also behind former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy's Republican party, an Ifop Fiducial poll showed earlier this month.

In the Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie region in northern France, where FN leader Marine Le Pen will be a candidate, the Socialists are also seen coming in third, an OpinionWay poll showed last month.

For Yann Galut, one of the Socialist lawmakers who is critical of the pro-business switch Hollande took last year with tax cuts for employers, there is fear in the party about how bad the defeat will be.

WHAT MESSAGE?

Predictions of the end result are hard to make because regions have been merged and only 13 will be contested this time, but pollsters say the left may only hold on to a handful.

Party leaders, including Prime Minister Manuel Valls, insist they will keep working on striking alliances with the Greens and other left-wing parties to up their chances, and said they were confident they could still win.

But the problem for the Socialist party is that it is not just about losing in December. The presidential ballot is in 2017, and Hollande's party remains unclear about what message to send to voters.

Socialist party members backed Hollande's policies in a party vote in May that helped silence rebel backbenchers, but the scars of that right-ward shift looked raw in La Rochelle, where delegates reacted badly to Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron's criticism of the PS's treasured 35-hour workweek.

Introduced by a previous Socialist government in 2000 in a bid to redistribute work and create jobs, the 35-hour limit is fiercely protected by the French left despite pressure from big business to relax it. The issue has become a rallying point for discontent over the pro-business direction Hollande has taken.

"The Socialists are schizophrenic," said Gilles Savary.

He is among those lawmakers who want the party to veer to the center as Labour did in Britain under Tony Blair in the late 1990s and as other European Socialist parties have in the past two decades.

"They're schizophrenic because on one hand they make speeches to party activists that are aimed at warming the heart with an 'impossible to be more leftwing than me' line, while on the other hand, in government, the Socialist party is actually facing reality in a more credible way," he said.

On top of all these troubles, while Hollande is likely to be his party's candidate as is the tradition in France for the incumbent, opinion polls consistently show that he would lose.

For Perrineau, a veteran analyst of French elections at the Cevipof research center and political science professor: "It will be very hard for the left in 2017, not the least because it's hard to see what its message will be."

"Will it be the old-style union of the Left with the Communists ... or a new Left, a more Blairite Left on the Valls-Macron line?"

Reporting by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Andrew Callus

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