PARIS (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls should both take part in the Socialist primary election to pick the party’s candidate for next year’s presidential race, a leading Socialist said on Saturday.
The comments from Claude Bartolone, head of the lower house of parliament, come as polls suggest the divided French left faces defeat at the hands of a centre-right candidate or far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the election next April and May.
The centre-right Les Republicains party will choose its own candidate on Sunday, with former prime minister Francois Fillon in pole position. The Socialist primaries take place in January.
Bartolone’s views contrast with messages from the Valls camp in past months that he would not fight Hollande for the Socialist ticket and would only stand if his boss, whose popularity ratings have been consistently low, did not.
Bartolone said he wanted to see as many candidates as possible, to ensure the various elements of the left could then unite around one candidate.
He urged Hollande, Valls and former economy minister Emmanuel Macron to all stand, saying the party would benefit from a large field of candidates. Macron is standing anyway as an independent.
“I want Valls to stand in the primaries, and I want Hollande to stand in the primaries,” Bartolone told reporters as he arrived at a left-wing political gathering north of Paris.
“I would prefer it if they both stood in the primaries, rather than one of them say ‘That’s it, I’m out, so I’m moving away from the campaign, I’m moving away from the Socialists, I’m moving away from what the government is doing’,” he added.
A source close to Valls said: “Claude Bartolone wants to bring about a collective decision. His main concern is how can we bring about unity, how can we build up momentum to take on the right-wing and the far right?”
Bartolone named Jean-Luc Melenchon as another left-wing candidate whom he would like to see involved. Melenchon on Saturday won the backing of the French Communist Party.
A former Socialist lawmaker, he gained 11.1 percent of the vote in the first round of the last presidential election in 2012, helped by Communist backing.
Another left-wing candidate, former housing minister Sylvia Pinel, also said on Saturday she would make a presidential bid representing the small PRG (Parti Radical de Gauche) party.
The Socialist primaries battle has exposed divisions in the party, with some urging Hollande not to stand while others have been more circumspect.
“There are so many internal tensions within the Socialist party that it has been hard for them to build up momentum,” said Francois Savary, chief investment officer at Geneva-based fund management firm Prime Partners.
Hollande is expected to say towards the end of the first week of December if he intends to run for re-election. His popularity rating fell to 4 percent in one opinion poll, but he got a boost this week when data showed unemployment had eased back slightly in October to a two-year low.
However, the economy remains sluggish and attacks by Islamist militants, including one in Paris in November 2015 that killed 130 people, have also damaged his ratings.
Polls suggest any Socialist candidate would get knocked out in the first round in next year’s election, with the Republicains candidate seen as likely to beat the far-right’s Le Pen in the final runoff vote.
But pollsters have been getting it wrong this year. After Britain’s referendum decision to exit the European Union and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, Fillon confounded predictions by winning the first round of the Republicains primaries.
Additional reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey and Sudip Kar-Gupta; Editing by Mark Trevelyan