Can they seize their golden chance?

If France's Socialists are to exploit their country's crisis and win back power, they need a message

With Jacques Chirac discredited, unemployment at nearly 10 per cent, and the country still reeling from November's riots in the suburbs, France's opposition Socialist Party (PS) should be looking forward to next year's presiden- tial and parliamentary elections with confidence, even with relish. History suggests that the PS should win comfortably, because every government since 1978 has been kicked out at the first opportunity. So, too, does the country's mood, which is gloomily defensive in the face of globalisation and anxious for an all-encompassing state to offer some form of salvation.

Far from licking their lips, however, the Socialists are deeply worried. Saddled with an implausible programme and a sur- feit of would-be leaders - including, bizarrely, two from the same household - they show little sign of being able to seize this promising day. Indeed, all the polls point to victory for the centre-right presidential candidate, whether that turns out to be the truculent minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, or his suave rival, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

It is not that Sarkozy and de Villepin inspire great hope. Neither is reckoned to have much chance of solving France's economic and social woes, according to the polls. It is just that the electorate extends even less credit to the Socialists. At best they are dismissed as no better than the rest of the country's unpopular ruling caste, and at worst they are actively despised for their squabbling.

They have a little time to turn this around: nine months to pick their presidential candidate and a further six months after that for the candidate to restore the party's reputation and seduce the electorate. That job begins on 8 February, the date when the first secretary of the Socialist Party, Francois Hollande, has summoned the entire French left to a meeting.

The official line is that Hollande wants to lay the foundations for a coalition government. In reality he wants to show off his proximity to Marie-George Buffet, leader of the unreconstructed Communist Party, and Olivier Besancenot, the young postman at the head of the Revolutionary Communist League.

Strange bedfellows for a party aspiring to power in 21st-century Europe, you may think, but Hollande is desperate to avoid a repeat of 2002, when the Socialists' man, Lionel Jospin, was eliminated in the first round of the presidential election after more than half of the core voters on the left backed communist, Trotskyist or green candidates instead. Hollande will use this month's meeting to send the message that a vote for Buffet, Besancenot or the even more extreme Arlette Laguiller, leader of the Workers' Struggle, is a vote to keep the right in power.

The trouble is that his strategy raises a question that was answered long ago in just about every other European country, but which remains a cause of deep anguish on the French left. It is the question that tore the opposition in two during the referendum on the European constitutional treaty last May, and it continues to divide the left now. The question is this: do you fight capitalism or do you reform it?

Hollande may be eager to share a platform with represen-tatives of the far left, but on this question he is definitely a reformist. The same cannot be said of his great rival, Laurent Fabius. Despite his bourgeois manners and his record as a moderate prime minister in the 1980s and an almost Blairite finance minister between 2000 and 2002, Fabius insists that if they are to win next year, the Socialists must not only be photo-graphed with the far left, they must borrow its policies.

Is he sincere? Does he mean all his anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation talk? Few commentators think so, but Fabius has given energy to a current that has always existed in the PS, but which had lost influence after running into the reality of power in Jospin's government. The effect can be gauged from the policy document produced by the party conference last November.

"The world is unbalanced," it declared, "Europe has broken down and France is in crisis." Then it proposed solutions to match the challenge.

"Part one: change the world" - more power and money for the United Nations, which will take control of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation.

"Part two: change Europe" - double the EU budget, introduce a European minimum wage and start discussions on a new constitution.

"Part three: change France" - increase taxes, wages and welfare benefits, cut working hours even more and ensure that all cars in all towns would be "totally clean" within ten years.

So who will be responsible for carrying this bewitching programme into the election and then, presumably, for dumping it afterwards? The obvious choice is between Hollande, who has been PS first secretary since 1997, and Fabius, the most statesmanlike of the Socialists.

Alas, Hollande suffers from a French version of IDS syndrome (he does not look or sound like a president), while Fabius has the opposite problem: he looks and sounds so much like a conventional French head of state that his attempt to portray himself as a radical left-winger seems ridiculous. Neither man is capable of provoking more than a blip in the polls.

So it is that the race has opened up to a bewildering host of other contenders, including Jack Lang, the eternally trendy former culture minister, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the erudite if offhand former finance minister, and Martine Aubry, the heavyweight former employment minister who is also the daughter of Jacques Delors. None of these, however, can match the impressive opinion poll ratings of Segolene Royal, the former minister for the family who happens to be the mother of Hollande's four children. An accomplished television performer, she has all the charisma her long-time partner lacks. She has also had the wit to avoid entanglement in the party's torrid policy disputes.

Royal is currently favourite for the presidential nomination. There are obstacles, however: she will have to overcome the stubborn sexism of French public life ("Who will look after the children?" asked Fabius when she announced her intention to run). She will have to square things with Hollande, whose nose has been put out of joint by her rise. And sooner or later she will have to talk about policy.

If she trips up, the mantle of presidential candidate could yet fall on the shoulders of Jospin, who is still in the wings. His supporters say he alone has the stature to unite the Socialists behind a credible programme. They suggest that left-wing voters, guilty about 2002, will want to redeem themselves by choosing him in 2007. And they claim that Jospin, as Chirac's old adversary, is best placed to capitalise on rejection of the centre right.

It may sound far-fetched. After all, Jospin is 68 years old and announced his retirement from public life after his pitiful election showing four years ago. But this is France. Ageing has-beens have been running the place for the past 25 years. Why not five more?