April 8, 2018 / 5:17 PM / 6 months ago

New French Socialist leader bids to revive struggling party

PARIS (Reuters) - The new leader of France’s Socialists, Olivier Faure, told supporters to bury internal divisions on Sunday and rally behind his bid to bring the party back from the political wilderness where it has languished since an electoral defeat last year.

FILE PHOTO: Olivier Faure, newly-elected First Secretary of French Socialist Party, attends a news conference at the French Socialist Party rue de Solferino headquarters in Paris, France, March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/File Photo

The party of former President Francois Hollande lost power in May 2017 and limped into fifth place in the presidential race, as Emmanuel Macron, backed by an upstart movement, swept away mainstream forces that had governed France for decades.

Across Europe the centre-left has lost ground to newer or anti-establishment forces in recent years, as voters pummelled by economic woes or frustrated with decades of the same parties taking turns in office seek out alternatives.

FILE PHOTO: Olivier Faure, newly-elected First Secretary of French Socialist Party, attends a news conference at the French Socialist Party rue de Solferino headquarters in Paris, France, March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/File Photo

Faure, a relative unknown in France who joined the Socialists at 17, drew the most votes during a leadership race in March, causing other candidates to withdraw.

On Sunday he urged the party, which first gained power in 1981 under Francois Mitterrand, to return to its roots by reconnecting with French workers while setting aside any lingering internal divisions.

“Great ideas never die, so let us show some confidence,” Faure told Socialists in his first major speech as leader on Sunday, after being formally appointed at a party congress on Saturday. “Let’s be proud of our history and of what we are.”

Macron, who had served in Hollande’s government as economy minister before quitting and launching his own party in 2016, was elected on a pro-reform platform and has so far managed to pass measures with little pushback from a splintered opposition.

FILE PHOTO: Olivier Faure, newly-elected First Secretary of French Socialist Party, poses before a news conference at the French Socialist Party rue de Solferino headquarters in Paris, France, March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/File Photo

The 40-year-old president’s Republic on the Move (LREM) party, which styles itself as neither left or right, enjoys a majority in parliament. Macron’s election victory prompted soul-searching for other forces.

The right-wing Les Republicains, the biggest opposition group in parliament, elected new leader Laurent Wauquiez last December. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen has proposed renaming her National Front party to “National Rally” as she seeks to facilitate alliances with other forces.

Faure, 49, took aim at Macron, saying the pro-business president, who has liberalised labour laws since taking power, was turning France “into a market”.

The attempted Socialist relaunch comes as Macron faces a showdown with labour unions over a modernisation of the state-owned rail group SNCF.

But the centre-left party still has an uphill struggle to emerge from the shadow of Hollande’s unpopular presidency.

Last year the party agreed to sell its historic headquarters in Paris after its electoral defeat left it strapped for cash.

Reporting by Sarah White and Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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