PARIS Jean-Marc Ayrault, the German-speaking leader of the French Socialists' parliamentary group, has emerged as frontrunner to become prime minister if party candidate Francois Hollande wins Sunday's presidential election runoff.
Ayrault, a former German teacher and long-time Hollande ally known for his pragmatic approach, has seen his fortunes rise in recent weeks over those of Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry, more of an old-school leftist.
Several Socialist party insiders and outside advisers to Hollande told Reuters that Ayrault is now favorite for the job. They requested anonymity because the candidate is keen to avoid any suggestion that he is taking victory over conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy for granted.
With his understanding of Germany's language and culture, the conciliatory Ayrault could be a bridge-builder with Berlin after an election campaign that focused on Hollande's demands to renegotiate a German-inspired budget discipline pact for Europe.
Mayor of the western city of Nantes, the reserved Ayrault has been a special advisor to Hollande's campaign, entrusted with liaising with other European left parties, particularly the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany.
Behind the scenes, the silver-haired 62-year-old has carried out sensitive missions. Last year, he met advisers to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin in an effort to build ties with her conservative government.
The result of the first round of French voting was widely seen as giving Ayrault a boost over Aubry, daughter of former European Commission President Jacques Delors, in the race for the premiership.
Communist-backed hard leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon scored more poorly than predicted, finishing fourth with 11.1 percent, easing the pressure on Hollande to name a prime minister capable of reaching out to the far left.
Socialist insiders say Hollande's achievement in beating the incumbent into second place in round one - the first time in recent history that a challenger has managed this - strengthened his hand to impose his personal choice for premier.
Hollande, who like Ayrault comes from the Socialists' moderate social democrat wing, insists he has not yet decided but the definition he gave for the post suggest a preference for the floor leader.
"The person in question must know the Socialist Party well, its left-wing members of parliament and be on the best of terms with me," Hollande said last week.
The Socialist candidate is determined to involve parliament more in euro zone crisis management after strategy under Sarkozy was controlled by a handful of unelected advisers.
He has expressed admiration for the German system, where parliament plays a bigger role in setting and supervising policy and has criticized the concentration of euro zone decision-making in the "Merkozy" duo, as Merkel and Sarkozy became known.
Ayrault would be well placed to liaise with both Berlin and the National Assembly, where he has held the Socialists together in government and opposition as floor leader since 1997.
"WE NEED TO FIND CONSENSUS"
The son of a factory worker, he has sat in parliament since 1986 and was initially on the Socialists' left wing before gradually shifting toward social democracy.
By contrast, Aubry, the mayor of Lille, has not been a member of parliament since 1997, when she became minister of labor and social affairs, introducing the 35-hour work week.
Hollande's insistence that he wants a prime minister with whom he has a strong personal relationship also appears to sideline Aubry. The pair have had cool relations since she criticized his stewardship of the Socialists after she succeeded him as party chief, and they clashed head-on during primaries last year for the Socialists presidential nomination.
If he gets the job, when a new government is announced in mid-May, one of Ayrault's first tasks would be to help soothe relations with Berlin over Hollande's plan to temper the fiscal compact signed by 25 EU leaders by adding a growth focus.
"The treaty is incomplete," Ayrault told Reuters in a recent interview, saying a supplementary growth pact was required. "We need to discuss this, to reopen the process. Each side needs to take a step toward the other. We need to find a consensus."
But he emphasized that an Hollande government would stick to promises to balance the budget by the end of its five-year term.
"All public spending will be evaluated to see if it is useful or not," Ayrault told Reuters.
Ayrault long seemed destined to stay a provincial politician after winning the mayoralty of Nantes in 1989. A potential thorn in his side is opposition by local residents and ecologists to the construction of a new airport, which he backs, for the prosperous Western city. Protesters have begun a hunger strike.
Another handicap is his lack of ministerial experience. With Hollande never having served as a minister, he may be tempted to opt for a premier who has served in government.
That would give an advantage to Aubry, or to Michel Sapin, Hollande's economic policy chief and a former finance minister.
(Additional reporting by Emile Picy; Editing by Paul Taylor)