French PM urged to prepare presidential bid if Hollande balks at running

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France's Prime Minister Manuel Valls looks over his notes during a luncheon for the Montreal Board of Trade in Montreal, Canada October 13, 2016. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

By Michel Rose and Simon Carraud

PARIS (Reuters) - Socialist lawmakers are urging Prime Minister Manuel Valls to prepare a run for the French presidency in place of Francois Hollande, whose chances of being re-elected next May they see as increasingly remote.

Hollande's poll ratings have made dismal reading for months. An opinion poll early in October put the Socialist in 12th place among voters choosing a good president.

Before he has even declared officially that he will be a candidate, Hollande's campaign was thrown further off-course last week by the publication of a book, "A President Shouldn't Say That", written by two Le Monde journalists.

In it, the president is quoted making disparaging comments about judges and his own ministers, and expressing other unguarded views that are controversial with many in his party.

Even some of his closest allies say the book has badly damaged his standing.

Valls, 54, is from the right of the Socialist party, and his hard line on security and French identity issues, plus his pro-business stance, have caused friction with its left wing.

His poll ratings are not much better than Hollande's either, but he is increasingly seen by colleagues as a better bet.

"If the president says 'I'm not going', Manuel could be in a position to go for it. We should think about it," MP Hugues Fourage told journalists this week ahead of a regular meeting of Socialist MPs.

"Valls should be asking himself about the question of a presidential bid if Hollande doesn't run," Sports Minister Patrick Kanner told Radio Classique on Tuesday.

According to Le Monde newspaper, Valls told his entourage before the book went on sale last week that he would declare himself "immediately" if the president were to drop out.

'THE END OF ME'

But others say Valls, whose popularity sank after a promising start as prime minister in 2014, is deeply hesitant about entering the fray.

The election looks lost anyway for the Socialists after five years of slow growth and stubbornly high unemployment. Former conservative prime minister Alain Juppe enjoys a clear lead in the polls.

Valls would prefer to let Hollande run next year and lose, so he can take advantage of five years in opposition to rebuild his popularity and have a better chance to win in 2022, a Socialist lawmaker told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

"Valls and (Socialist Party Chief Jean-Christophe) Cambadelis want a "clean defeat" so when Hollande's political funeral comes, they can take over the party and get ready for next time," the lawmaker said.

Investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaine went further.

"I could find myself as candidate, but I'd end up with 10 percent. That would be the end of me in politics," it quoted Spanish-born Valls as saying.

CURSE OF MATIGNON

Many a French presidential ambition has been cut short by a stint as prime minister, a thankless position because of the presidency's wide-ranging powers.

Commentators talk of the "curse of Matignon", a reference to the official residence that goes with the job. No French prime minister has ever managed to vault straight into the country's highest office, and just two -- Jacques Chirac and Georges Pompidou -- eventually won the presidency.

The ambitions of two former economy ministers of Hollande's government, Emmanuel Macron on the right and Arnaud Montebourg on the left, both now free of any cabinet duties, are also complicating things for Valls.

Montebourg is the champion of those on the left who mistrust Valls, while 38-year-old Macron, appointed after Valls, is seen as having stolen the young, daring, pro-business image Valls tried to cultivate.

"Valls probably regrets not leaving the ship when he could have nine months ago," Odoxa pollster head Gael Sliman said. "He would have been best-placed today to take up the baton, but Macron and Montebourg are now way ahead."

Prime Ministerial officials declined to comment on Valls' intentions with regard to standing for the presidency.

(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry, Emile Picy and Jean-Baptiste Vey; Writing by Michel Rose; Editing by Andrew Callus and Catherine Evans)

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