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Sarkozy's opening to left adds to Socialists' woes

PARIS (Reuters) - French Socialist leaders accused president-elect Nicolas Sarkozy of trying to undermine their party by appointing leftists to his cabinet and said it would be treacherous for opposition figures to heed his call.

Conservative leader Sarkozy, who takes office on Wednesday, has held talks with several Socialists, party sources say, and offered the foreign ministry post to leftist Bernard Kouchner.

The news has jolted the Socialists, who are still reeling from their third straight presidential defeat, and highlighted the deep divisions that risk undermining the party’s efforts to rally support for parliamentary elections in June.

Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande said he had warned Kouchner that he would belong to a rightist team if he took up Sarkozy’s offer.

“It will be a government of the right that will conduct policies of the right, with a president of the right. One needs to have coherence and constancy. The rest is a matter for one’s conscience,” he said, urging more “morality in politics”.

“Poaching, treachery, profiting from people’s frustrations - I leave that to others,” he said.

France is to hold a two-round legislative election next month and Sarkozy is keen to secure a large majority to enable him to push through his reform agenda. Recent surveys see his conservatives ahead of the Socialists.

“(Sarkozy) is campaigning for the parliamentary elections and his goal is to have as little opposition as possible and to spark divisions on the left,” Jean-Marc Arnault, the leader of the Socialist group in parliament, told a news conference.

He dismissed a “Sarko show” designed to “discourage leftist voters.”

SOCIALIST DIVISIONS

The Socialists have been divided since voters rejected the European Union constitution in 2005, and the presidential campaign of their candidate Segolene Royal opened new splits.

Royal comprehensively won the party’s presidential primary last year. But her subsequent emphasis on her independence from the party caused anger within Socialist ranks and the knives have been out for her since her May 6 election defeat.

Royal has called on the party to pursue her courtship of centrists, while former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a defeated primary contender, says the party should reinvent itself as a social-democratic force.

Another stalwart, former prime minister Laurent Fabius, says the Socialists should look left and stay true to their roots.

Hollande, Royal’s partner and father of her four children, added to the confusion on Sunday when he called for the creation of a major new leftwing party.

Almost six out of 10 voters say the Socialists should focus on alliances with the centrists, a recent Ifop poll showed.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Hollande did not elaborate on his idea for a new party, saying the focus now lay on winning legislative polls.

The start of the briefing was interrupted when a microphone fell to the floor, prompting a wry joke from Hollande: “I’ll start again. I wish I could start the presidential election again, oh well...”

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