France's Hollande nears exit as party falls apart

by Guy JACKSON

Paris (AFP) - French President Francois Hollande chaired his final cabinet meeting Wednesday before handing over the reins to Emmanuel Macron, while the governing Socialist Party began to splinter.

Macron will be inaugurated on Sunday and the centrist's victory over far-right leader Marine Le Pen is threatening to rapidly re-draw the French political map.

The bruising contest left the traditional parties on the sidelines, and Hollande's ruling Socialist Party is in disarray after the two-round election.

After former prime minister Manuel Valls shocked the party by saying it was "dead" and he wanted to be a parliamentary candidate for Macron's year-old "Republique en Marche" (Republic on the Move) movement, another leading Socialist struck out on Wednesday.

Benoit Hamon, who as the Socialist presidential candidate finished fifth in the first round of the election, said he planned to launch a new leftwing movement.

Hamon vowed to "rebuild the left" with a new "broad-based movement", while saying he intended to remain a member of the Socialist Party.

Leftwinger Hamon beat centrist Valls to secure the Socialist nomination for the election after an ideological battle within the party.

But he won just 6.4 percent of the first-round presidential vote on April 23 after being overshadowed by Communist-backed firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Hamon said his movement would be launched on July 1, after legislative elections in June that will be crucial to Macron's ability to pursue his agenda.

Macron, 39, has promised to rejuvenate France's jaded governing class by bringing more people into parliament who, like him, have never held elected office.

The incoming president has said half of Republique en Marche's candidates for the 577 seats up for grabs in the June 11-18 elections to the National Assembly will be new to politics.

The rest will be from the centrist Modem party or rebels from the Socialists and rightwing Republicans -- and he will likely need to form a coalition to govern.

The candidates will be announced on Thursday but Macron's movement said Wednesday that Valls had "not yet" fulfilled the criteria.

The ramifications of Macron's victory are also being felt in Le Pen's National Front (FN), following the announcement that her influential niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen is quitting politics -- for now.

Marechal-Le Pen, 27, who has been tipped as a future leader of the party, told a regional newspaper in southern France she would resign her parliamentary seat because she wanted to work in the private sector and spend more time with her two-year-old daughter.

Behind her decision though is a battle for the far-right party's future between the more socially progressive wing led by her aunt and the more Catholic, conservative branch based in the south of France represented by Marechal-Le Pen.

She was openly critical of Marine Le Pen's score of 33.9 percent against Macron, reflecting the opinion of many critics of her aunt that any score below 40 percent was a failure.

Marine Le Pen, a mother of three, tweeted that "as a political leader I deeply regret Marion's decision but, alas, as a mum, I understand it".

- Right wants power share -

The conservative Republicans party, whose candidate Francois Fillon crashed out in the first round of the presidential election after being charged over giving his wife allegedly "fake" jobs on the public payroll, are aiming to become the majority party in parliament.

That would force Macron to share power with them in what is known as a "cohabitation" in France.

A poll showed that only 52 percent of voters want a pro-Macron government to emerge from the elections, while 42 percent favoured a legislature that would be a check on the new leader.

Optimism seemed muted too, with 55 percent of respondents to the Elabe survey saying they thought Macron would "not improve things for the French people".

Macron meanwhile was mobbed by wellwishers after he took part in a ceremony in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris with Hollande to commemorate the abolition of slavery.

After embracing each member of his government as they left the Elysee Palace for the final time, Hollande said he had not decided what to do after he leaves office.

"How can I be of use to my country? That is the question I am going to try to answer now by mulling over it," the 62-year-old said.