France’s Aubry takes helm of divided party .hurriyet2008-detailbox-newslink { font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size:13px; font-weight:bold; text-decoration:none; color:#000000;} .hurriyet2008-detailbox-newslink:hover { font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size:13px; font-weight:bold; text-decoration:underline; color:#990000;} PARIS - The French Socialists' first female leader began her new job yesterday faced with the formidable task of proving she is not the captain of a sinking ship but a woman capable of rallying her feuding troops.

"Good Luck...," said the front-page headline of the left-wing Liberation newspaper above a picture of a smiling Martine Aubry, a traditional leftist best known as the woman who gave France the 35-hour working week.

The 58-year-old ex-labor minister was declared the winner late Tuesday after a bitter leadership fight lost by former presidential candidate Segolene Royal. Aubry won by a wafer-thin margin of 102 votes of the 137,000 card-carrying Socialists polled, according to official results of Friday's ballot that were confirmed Tuesday despite Royal's accusations of irregularities in the count.

The leadership vote was meant to put an end to the infighting that has for years wracked a party which has failed to produce a French president since Francois Mitterrand left office in 1995.

But it has left the Socialists even deeper in disarray and less capable of fighting right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has undermined the leftist party by bringing some of its prominent members into his government. Sarkozy's supporters have been chuckling with delight as the Socialists go for each other's jugulars.

Olive branch to Royal
In her first speech as the new Socialist leader, Aubry late Tuesday held out an olive branch to her rival saying she would seek Royal's help to breathe new life into the party.

"My first task, if she accepts, is to meet Segolene and tell her that I, like her, have heard the message from the members ...'we want the left to return'." "Together we will win for the French people," added Aubry, the first woman to head one of France's main parties.

Royal gave signs of conceding the leadership race when she called after the result was announced on the party to "unite and re-group." But yesterday she made it clear that she may have lost the party leadership but she had no plans to give up her ambition to stand as a candidate in the next presidential election due in 2012.

"I need you, I need your ideas; we will continue, 2012 is very soon, 2012 is tomorrow," she said in a message to her supporters on her website.