Big turnout as French left picks its candidate

France's opposition Socialists boasted on Sunday that a strong turnout in their primary was an early victory in the battle to oust Nicolas Sarkozy, but failed to choose a clear winner of their own.

Big turnout as French left picks its candidate
Incorruptible (File)

As expected, 57-year-old former party leader Francois Hollande was in first place but, with most polling stations reporting, he had only 39 percent of the vote and was on course to face a tight run-off vote.

In next Sunday’s second round, he will face 61-year-old Martine Aubry, a former labour minister best known for introducing France’s 35-hour working week, who stood at 31 percent.

“I know that today I am ready to take on the challenges that confront our country. I am the candidate of change,” Hollande declared, urging supporters of other candidates to rally behind him in the second round.

As Hollande noted, he was “clearly ahead”, but his victory is not certain.

Next week, Aubry will hope to pick up many of the votes that went on Sunday to third-placed protectionist candidate Arnaud Montebourg, who surprised some observers by winning over many on the left of the party and scoring 17 percent.

“I’ll beat Mr Sarkozy in 2012,” Aubry said, arguing she is best placed to represent the desire for “change and renewal” revealed by the vote.

The night’s big loser was Segolene Royal, Hollande’s former partner and the mother of his four children, who was the defeated presidential candidate in 2007 and admitted it was “disappointing” to win only seven percent.

Behind her, from the right of the party, was free-market pragmatist Manuel Valls with about six percent. The only non-Socialist candidate, Jean-Michel Baylet of the Radical Party of the Left, won just one percent.

Montebourg did not endorse either of the frontrunners, Royale said she was considering her position and would make an announcement soon, and Valls called on his supporters to swing behind Hollande.

Hollande and Aubry have it all to play for in the last week of the campaign, but their party was already calling the vote itself a victory for the left, claiming a turnout in excess of two million.

“We’ve given a foretaste of the great French team that awaits us in 2012,” Aubry said of rivals and comrades in the Socialist field, whose debate she said had given a good image of France and of politics.

Sunday’s election was France’s first ever US-style open primary open to any registered elector ready to pay a one euro fee and sign a declaration that he or she supports the ideals of the left.

“It’s an immense victory for democracy, for citizens, for the French,” said the party’s interim leader Harlem Desir. “The Socialist Party is ready for its great appointment in 2012.”

France has been led from the right since Socialist president Francois Mitterrand left office in 1995, and all recent opinion polls suggest that either Hollande or Aubry would defeat Sarkozy next year.

After five years in office, Sarkozy’s popularity has been hit hard by the sputtering economy, high unemployment and a series of financial scandals.

Hollande benefited from the spectacular downfall of former IMF chief and Socialist presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose career ended when he was charged with the attempted rape of a New York hotel maid.

The US case against him collapsed, but Strauss-Kahn’s long-planned campaign was sunk, and Hollande’s equally careful preparation allowed him to fill the gap despite criticism that he lacks any ministerial experience.

Since last year, the former Socialist general secretary has been on the trail, meeting voters, losing 10 kilos of unpresidential body fat and shaking off an image as a jovial but uninspiring party apparatchik.

He has stuck to a cautious, centrist platform, arguing the left will lose credibility if it promises voters too much in a time of economic austerity and insisting he is best-placed to beat Sarkozy

This has allowed Aubry some room for manoeuvre to his left, despite the difficulties she has had persuading voters she is not a “substitute” candidate chosen by default after Strauss-Kahn dropped out of the running.

The primary was the climax of three months of campaigning enlivened by three televised debates between the candidates that were watched by millions.

“It’s great to be able to choose the candidate of a party that you feel close to, it’s a privilege — at last we’re taking the citizen into account,” said one excited voter, 44-year-old Valerie Halin.

Sarkozy spent Sunday in Berlin discussing how to rescue European ailing banks with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, but his supporters played down the significance of the primary and insisted the real race is next year.

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Here’s the latest in France’s presidential race

President Francois Hollande warned would-be successors they should cleave closely to Europe as it was "impossible" that France could contemplate going its own way.

Here's the latest in France's presidential race
French centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron in Reunion. Photo: Eric Feferberg/AFP

Here are three things that happened in the campaign on Saturday:

Let them throw eggs

Conservative candidate Francois Fillon, under pressure over allegations of fake parliamentary jobs for the family which have hit his poll ratings, received a chaotic reception on a trip to the southern Basque region where some protesters pelted him with eggs.

Fillon, who has accused Hollande of helping foment a smear campaign against him amid claims his wife was on the public payroll but did little for her salary, ran the gauntlet in the small town of Cambo-les-Bains.

Locals demanding an amnesty for radical Basque nationalists banged pots and pans, hurled abuse and objects.

“The more they demonstrate the more the French will back me,” Fillon insisted before meeting with local officials.

Warning on Europe

President Francois Hollande warned would-be successors they should cleave closely to Europe as it was “impossible” that France could contemplate going its own way.

In a barb aimed at far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, Hollande said: “So some want to quit Europe? Well let them show the French people they would be better off alone fighting terrorism without the indispensable European coordination…

“Let them show that without the single currency and (single) market there would be more jobs, activity and better purchasing power,” Hollande said in Rome where he attended the ceremonies marking the EU's 60th anniversary.

Le Pen, favoured in opiniion polls to reach the second-round run-off vote in May, wants France to dump the euro, but Hollande said that would lead to devaluation and loss of purchasing power as he warned against nationalist populism.

'Not Father Christmas'

French centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, seen in polls as beating Marine Le Pen in the May 7 run-off, was in Reunion, a French overseas department in the Indian Ocean, where alongside discussing local issues, he told voters he was “not Father Christmas.”

“I don't have the solution to all problems and I am not Father Christmas,” the 39-year-old former economy minister and banker admitted, saying he had not come to make “promises.”

He indicated he would focus on education as a priority on an island where around one in five youths are illiterate.