September 12, 2012 / 12:55 PM / 7 years ago

Veteran Socialist Desir set to lead France's ruling party

* Nomination criticised by right-wing opposition

* Far-right slams contest between “two ex-convicts”

* Desir regarded as Hollande-friendly leader in hard times

By Brian Love

PARIS, Sept 12 (Reuters) - France’s ruling Socialists said on Wednesday a long-serving party member who was convicted of financial misdemeanours in the 1990s has been nominated to succeed former minister Martine Aubry as leader.

Harlem Desir, a member of the European Parliament and former president of rights group SOS Racisme, is seen as a safe choice for President Francois Hollande at a time when party hardliners are protesting against his plans for major cuts in the deficit.

The 52-year-old, a Socialist Party veteran who has never been a minister or member of the national parliament, fended off competition for the post from another veteran who has also been convicted of financial misconduct, Jean-Christophe Cambadelis.

Desir was fined and given an 18-month suspended jail term in 1998 by a court that found him guilty of taking illicit payment from an organisation that provided immigrants with professional training.

Rival Cambadelis was convicted twice on similar grounds in two other Socialist Party affairs.

Three months after elections that swept the left to power after a decade in opposition, Desir’s nomination, announced in a statement by Aubry and Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, sparked scathing reactions from opposition parties.

The far-right National Front led the charge, with party vice-president, Louis Aliot, decrying in a statement what he called a nomination contest between “two ex-convicts”.

More moderate adversaries within the centre-right UMP party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy denounced Desir’s nomination as a stitch-up rather than a contest worthy of the party that struck a chord with voters last year when it held France’s first-ever open primary to pick a presidential runner.

While Desir’s appointment still has to be endorsed by party members in an October vote, the duel with Cambadelis was settled in negotiations behind closed doors between Aubry and Ayrault, and - according to some media reports - Hollande himself.

UMP member Valerie Rosso-Debord said the Socialist Party had reverted to “the methods of the ancien regime” of pre-revolutionary monarchy-ruled France.

“Two people nominate Desir and the Socialist Party wants to give us a lesson in democracy,” tweeted UMP Senator Roger Karoutchi.

Beyond the controversy over the nomination process and the court conviction dating back to an era when murky funding was much more part of the fabric of French political life, Desir is regarded as a Hollande-friendly choice at a tricky moment.

One of his main challenges will be to limit dissenters on the party’s left who reject a European budget responsibility pact Hollande hopes to ratify next month and deficit-cutting plans that some hardliners say amount to dangerous austerity.

Desir, like Hollande, carved his pro-European credentials in stone when he fought unsuccessfully in 2005 to convince the Socialist Party to back a new European constitutional treaty.

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