French left chooses presidential hopeful in US-style primary
French left-wing voters on Sunday held their first US-style primary to choose the Socialists' candidate to take on an increasingly vulnerable Nicolas Sarkozy in next year's presidential election.
Opinion polls put former party leader Francois Hollande at the head of a pack of six candidates in the primary, open for the first time in France to any self-declared left-winger on the electoral roll who pays a nominal one-euro fee.
The winner will in April 2012 take on embattled conservative Sarkozy, with the resurgent left intent on entering the Elysee palace for the first time since France's longest-serving president Francois Mitterand left in 1995.
"This is a demonstration of 100-percent democracy, especially as we've never been able to choose a candidate for the presidency before," said Patrick, a 54-year-old civil servant, as he voted in Paris.
Fellow voter Vincent admitted that he and his partner would vote Green in the first round of the presidential but said he "wanted to influence which Socialist candidate will stand against Sarkozy in the second round."
After five years in office, Sarkozy's popularity has been hit hard by the sputtering economy, high unemployment and a series of of scandals involving close aides.
The latest IFOP poll predicted that Hollande would win Sunday's vote with 43 percent. Next is Martine Aubry, a former labour minister and creator of France's popular 35-hour working week, tipped to win 28 percent of votes.
In the likely event that no candidate receives an absolute majority in Sunday's first-round vote, a second run-off round will be held October 16.
Either Hollande, 57, or Aubry, 61, would beat Sarkozy in next year's presidential vote, opinion polls say, with the Socialists having last month taken control of the Senate for the first time in decades.
"I'm full of hope because I think that the process of this primary will place us squarely ahead of the right and the far-right," Hollande said as he cast his vote in the southwestern town of Tulle.
Hollande has benefited greatly from the spectacular collapse of former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn's political career.
Strauss-Kahn had been favourite to return in triumph from Washington, win the Socialist primary and then sweep Sarkozy from office, until May, when he was arrested in New York and charged with sexually assaulting a 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.
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.
Aubry voted in the northern city of Lille, where she is mayor, hailing "this beautiful democratic act that we have striven to organise."
She voiced confidence in voters choosing "real change" and said that if one million people voted on Sunday, "that would be a real success."
The vote in around 10,000 polling stations nationwide is the climax of months of campaigning enlivened by two unprecedented televised debates between the six candidates.
Previous Socialist presidential campaigns have been damaged by infighting, and Sunday's popular vote should lend both popular legitimacy and unified party support to the 2012 candidate.
Segolene Royale, 58, the Socialists' defeated candidate in 2007 and Hollande's former life partner with whom she has four children, is also in the running.
The other candidates are Manuel Valls, 49, a free-market pragmatist from the Socialists' right, Arnaud Montebourg, 48, who has campaigned on a protectionist ticket, and Jean-Michel Baylet, 64.
Baylet heads the small, centrist Radical Party of the Left, and is the only non-Socialist in the race.
Polls in Sunday's vote will close at 7:00 pm (1700 GMT).
© 2011 AFP