Hollande leads French left’s presidential primary

Francois Hollande, one of France’s six Socialist Party primary election candidates, waves as he leaves in a car in Paris on October 9, 2011. — Reuters picFrancois Hollande, one of France’s six Socialist Party primary election candidates, waves as he leaves in a car in Paris on October 9, 2011. — Reuters picPARIS, Oct 10 — Moderate left-wing candidate Francois Hollande led in a primary vote for the French Socialist Party’s presidential nomination yesterday, bolstering his position as the favourite to unseat conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy in April.

More than two million people voted in France‘s first US-style primary election to select a presidential candidate, which the Socialists say was inspired by the process that gave Barack Obama the momentum to take the White House.

The Socialist Party published preliminary results showing Hollande in front with 39 per cent of votes, short of an absolute majority and therefore headed for a runoff on October 16.

He will face Martine Aubry, a one-time labour minister and daughter of former European Commission president Jacques Delors. She won 31 per cent in the preliminary readout.

Opinion polls have predicted that Hollande, a witty if unexciting party veteran who has never been a government minister, would not only win the Socialist primary but would defeat Sarkozy by a comfortable margin if the two face off in the presidential battle next April.

That would make him the first Socialist leader in the Elysee Palace for 17 years.

The contenders and Socialist Party chief Harlem Desir described the turnout on a drizzly day across much of the country as a triumph for democracy, the party and its future presidential candidate.

Previous primaries were closed-shop events, limited to about 200,000 party members in a country of more than 65 million. This time, any registered voter who paid a euro (RM4.22) and professed to support left-wing values could participate.

“It’s not expensive to get rid of Sarkozy,” Hollande said before yesterday’s ballot, where he competed with five others including Aubry and Segolene Royal, his former partner and mother of his four children.

After yesterday’s results, Hollande appealed to all voters to back him in the October 16 runoff.

“The winning candidate will have the job of beating the right and sidelining the far right. As of today I am in a position to meet that challenge,” he told supporters in Paris.

“Do what it takes so that when the second round is over I will be the candidate who allows France to recover confidence in itself,” he added.

Aubry too flexed her muscles for the final duel, speaking to supporters after the other four contenders conceded defeat.

Voters wanted a change, she said. “I will unite all those who want this change and beat Sarkozy in 2012,” she said.

The Socialists were deprived of a potentially strong candidate this year when Dominique Strauss-Kahn resigned his post as head of the International Monetary Fund after being charged with a sex assault in New York. The charges were later dropped, but Strauss-Kahn’s political career has not recovered.

Hollande’s closest rival has always been Aubry, minister from 1997 to 2002 when a left-wing government last held office.

In one surprise, the preliminary results showed anti-globalisation contender Arnaud Montebourg in third place with about 17 per cent of votes. Royal, who lost the 2007 presidential election to Sarkozy, had been expected to place third but sank to a score of seven per cent.

The final results were not expected before 0930 GMT today at the earliest, said Jean-Pierre Mignard, a spokesman for the body in charge of overseeing the ballot. There had been no reports of voting irregularities and no complaints late into yesterday, he added.

Victory by numbers

The novelty of the primary contest may give the Socialists a boost if, in addition to the healthy turnout, it produces a clear-cut winner, political analysts say.

Millions have tuned into live television debates between the Socialist candidates in the past three weeks as the primary appeared to capture the popular imagination.

Sarkozy’s UMP party, which criticised the Socialists’ motives for the innovation at the outset, is considering doing the same, not in time for the upcoming presidential election but the one after it, says Prime Minister Francois Fillon.

In opinion polls, Sarkozy remains deeply unpopular and voters are ready to see the left take power. Parliamentary elections will be held on the heels of the presidential election, with a first ballot on April 22 and run-off on May 6.

While the contenders in yesterday’s Socialist primary sparred on occasion, Hollande and Aubry have often been accused of not being very different on policy even if, on style, Aubry comes across as slightly more old-schhol left that Hollande.

Their party manifesto established the basic thrust of their policy, which is to repeal €50 billion of tax breaks introduced under Sarkozy, using half of that money to cut the deficit and the other half to promote jobs and economic growth. — Reuters




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