Big turnout as French left picks champion to face Sarkozy
France's opposition Socialists boasted Sunday that a bigger than expected turn-out in their primary was an early victory in the battle to oust Nicolas Sarkozy, but failed to find a clear winner.
As expected, 57-year-old former party leader Francois Hollande was in the lead but, with more than half of polling stations reporting, he had only 39 percent of the vote and was on course to face a run-off vote.
In next Sunday's second round, he will face 61-year-old Martine Aubry, a former labour minister who introduced France's 35-hour working week and stood at 31 percent.
Hollande is still favourite but his victory if not certain, with Aubry expecting to pick up most of the votes that on Sunday went to protectionist left-winger Arnaud Montebourg, predicted to score 17 percent.
The night's big loser was 58-year-old Segolene Royal, Hollande's former partner and the mother of his four children, who was the left's defeated presidential candidate in 2007 but trailed in fourth with seven percent.
Behind her were the two most right-wing candidates: free-market pragmatist Manuel Valls on around six-percent and the only non-Socialist, Jean-Michel Baylet of the Radical Party of the Left, on just one.
Hollande and Aubry therefore 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.
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 has benefited greatly from the spectacular collapse of former IMF chief and Socialist presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn's political career after 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 equal 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 (22 pounds) of unpresidential body fat and shaking off an image as a jovial but uninspiring party apparatchik.
He has clung hard to a cautious, centrist platform, arguing the left will lose credibility if it promises too much in a time of economic austerity.
But 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.
Vincent and Lili, a young couple who brought their two children to see them vote, said: "We'll vote Green in the first round next year, but we wanted to influence who will be the Socialist in the run-off against Sarkozy."
Sarkozy spent Sunday in Berlin trying to agree a plan to rescue European 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.
© 2011 AFP