PARIS Political pressure increased on Socialist leader Martine Aubry Tuesday to run in the party's presidential primary after the favorite, IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was charged with sexual assault in New York.
Despite a rare public display of unity by the leadership, battle lines are being redrawn as Socialists try to fill the void left by Strauss-Kahn's spectacular fall from grace.
Until this weekend, the former finance minister had appeared best placed to unseat conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, who polls leave trailing in third place behind him and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Political analysts say the Socialists must quickly plug the void left by Strauss-Kahn and use the primary campaign as a springboard for the 2012 election.
"Nicolas Sarkozy is very happy the Socialists will again be in difficulty for weeks, as this allows him to impose his themes on the political debate and launch his own (re-election) campaign," said Jerome Fourquet at pollster IFOP.
Both Fourquet and political analyst Stephane Rozes said former Socialist party leader Francois Hollande was now the favorite to contest the presidency for the Socialists.
But Socialist deputy Claude Bartolone said he hoped Aubry would now stand. "Let's unite behind the person who has the legitimacy to represent this unity, the first secretary of the Socialist Party," he told France Info radio.
Aubry acknowledged the party had been knocked sideways by Strauss-Kahn's weekend arrest and remand in jail on charges he tried to rape a maid at a luxury New York hotel, but promised it would be ready for the presidential battle.
With a mid-July deadline fast approaching to enter the Socialist selection contest, Aubry urged the party to pull together, look beyond the scandal and focus on the presidential race. The party candidate will be picked in October.
"Unity, responsibility, combativeness, these are the three words which came up the most this morning," Aubry told reporters after the meeting of the party leadership in Paris.
"There was emotion, of course, and the shock we all feel, but it is our responsibility to be up to the task," she said.
"I say to the French people: we will be ready in 2012."
Aubry, 60, who has appeared reluctant to run, said the party would not be rushed into changing its plans for the primary.
"We have a timetable and today is not the moment" to declare a candidacy, she told France Info radio Tuesday.
With Strauss-Kahn out of the frame, Aubry and former party leader Francois Hollande, both veterans with a strong support base, have emerged as the leading contenders.
A small-sample Harris Interactive poll in the newspaper Le Parisien gave Hollande 49 percent support among Socialists and Aubry 23 percent. Segolene Royal, defeated by Sarkozy in 2007, trailed on 10 percent.
"Francois Hollande appeared as the fallback candidate in the event that Strauss-Kahn didn't run," as their center-left policies were similar, said IFOP pollster Fourquet.
"Hollande now finds himself the favorite, but not the absolute favorite, because there is Martine Aubry."
Aubry was the architect of France's 35-hour work week in the late 1990s and has political clout as the daughter of former European Commission President Jacques Delors.
She has support from party militants but is an uncharismatic campaigner and may struggle to fire up left-wing voters.
Hollande, 56, has never been a government minister and lacks international experience but appears to have the appetite for the battle that many commentators say Aubry lacks.
"He clearly gives the impression of a fierce and lasting desire to run," Fourquet said. "In France we say the election is won by the person who wants to win it most."
Hollande is judged to have better campaigning skills than Aubry and would outshine his former partner Segolene Royal, whose star has waned since her defeat by Sarkozy and her defeat by Aubry in a bitter battle for the party leadership.
Political analyst Stephane Rozes said Hollande was now the clear favorite to win the Socialist nomination as he was the best prepared for the coming campaign.
"I think if Dominique Strauss-Kahn is convicted French voters will want to turn the page of bling bling presidents," he said, referring to criticisms that Strauss-Kahn and Sarkozy were overly drawn to the lifestyles of the rich, powerful and famous.
"They will be drawn to candidates who appear simple, who master their acts and what they say," he said, characteristics Hollande has claimed for himself.
Analysts also expect more candidates to emerge, namely former prime minister Laurent Fabius, who would be by far the weightiest contender on the left, and Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, popular for his imaginative city projects.
(Additional reporting by Catherine Bremer; editing Tim Pearce)