UPDATE 1-French PM Valls keeps open option of challenge to Hollande

World Sunday 27/November/2016 19:40 PM
By: Times News Service

* Valls keeps open option of challenging Hollande * Hollande: left-wing must unite behind one another (Releads, adds comments from Hollande and more detail) By Jean-Baptiste Vey PARIS, Nov 27 (Reuters) - French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Sunday kept open the possibility he could challenge his boss Francois Hollande as the Socialists' candidate in the 2017 presidential election, risking a further splintering of an already fractured left. In past weeks, the message from the Valls' camp has been that he would wait for President Hollande's decision on whether to seek a second term, and would make a presidential bid of his own only if Hollande decided to step aside. However, in an interview published on Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, Valls did not rule out running against Hollande in the Socialist party primaries in January. "I will make my decision while examining my conscience...Whatever happens, the best interests of the country will influence my decision," he said. Asked if he was putting pressure on Hollande, Valls replied: "This is a very serious and historic moment for the country. Each of us must be aware of that. I am putting pressure on everyone." Valls was also openly critical of Hollande's conduct with regard to the publication of a controversial book on his presidency based on interviews throughout the five-year term conducted by two journalists. A Valls versus Hollande scenario could divide the Socialists further, just as their centre right opponents pick a candidate and get down to serious campaigning against the far right. A run-off vote to choose the centre-right Les Republicains candidate, with former prime minister Francois Fillon seen likely to win, was under way on Sunday with a result expected later in the evening. Polls suggest no candidate of the left would reach a second round run-off in next May's election, where the Les Republicains candidate chosen in Sunday's vote would probably face far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen. Hollande has scored the lowest popularity ratings of modern times in a five-year mandate marked by high unemployment and a series of Islamist militant attacks on French soil. His authority has also been put in question by the publication in October of the book written by journalists from Le Monde newspaper. In interviews for the book, Hollande was shown as criticising many of his own allies, spoke of "problems with Islam" and revealed details of conversations between state leaders. "We need to state that over the last few weeks, the context has changed. The publication of that book created real disarray amongst the left-wing," said Valls, who also warned that the Socialist party risked getting wiped out in next year's vote. Referring to Valls' interview, Hollande told an audience in Madagascar - where he was attending a gathering for French-speaking countries -: "The most important thing is that we all get behind one another." Earlier on Saturday, leading Socialist politician Claude Bartolone had said Hollande and Valls should both take part in the Socialist primary election to pick the party's candidate for next year's presidential race. Other presidential candidates in France's fractured left-wing include former economy minister Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Luc Melenchon. (Additional reporting by Myriam Rivet; Writing by Sudip Kar-Gupta; Editing by Andrew Callus and David Evans)