French left picks presidential candidate in US-style primary
French left-wing voters on Sunday held their first ever 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 six candidates in the vote, open for the first time to any self-declared left-winger on the electoral roll who pays a nominal one-euro fee.
The Socialist Party official said that they had reached their own target of one million votes cast before the end of the afternoon, already branding the election a great success.
Interim Socialist Party leader Harlem Desir said the turnout was proof of "a great chain of citizens forming to say 'no' to Nicolas Sarkozy and to say 'yes' to change next spring".
After five years in office, Sarkozy's popularity has been hit hard by the sputtering economy, high unemployment and a series of scandals involving close aides.
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 after 14 years.
The website for finding one of the around 10,000 polling stations crashed briefly in the morning, with a simplified version of the site back online later Sunday.
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.
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 Yok 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 he lacks vital ministerial experience for France's top job.
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.
Strauss-Kahn voted at the town hall in Sarcelles, north of Paris, for Aubry, with whom he revealed a few weeks ago he had a non-aggression pact for the presidential election.
The vote is the climax of three months of campaigning enlivened by three unprecedented televised debates between the six candidates that were watched by millions.
"I have left-wing views and I like the fact that I'm asked my opinion," said Salima, 46, as she voted in the Paris suburb of Pantin.
"The primary is innovative and the debates between candidates enlightened me even if I already had an idea about who I'd vote for," she said.
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