By Brian Love, Reuters
PARIS–Seven months from a presidential election, French voters flocked to the polls on Sunday to choose who will run for the opposition Socialist Party and the favorite was a moderate left-winger little known to the outside world, Francois Hollande. It was the first open-door election primary in France and the Socialists hoped this would boost the legitimacy of their presidential candidate. Opinion polls show Hollande beating Nicolas Sarkozy, who is widely expected to seek re-election, to become the first Socialist leader in the Elysee Palace for 17 years, but he must first secure the backing of his own camp. The main opposition party was deprived of a potentially strong candidate in Dominique Strauss-Kahn due to a sex-assault scandal that hit the former International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief.
Nearly 750,000 had voted by the middle of the day, according to Socialist Party head Harlem Desir. That reinforced party hopes that, despite dull and drizzly skies, two million or more would participate in a vote that was restricted in the past to about 200,000 party members in the country of more than 60 million people. This time, any registered voter who pays a euro (US$1.35) and professes to support left-wing values can participate. “It’s not expensive to get rid of Sarkozy,” Hollande said before Sunday’s ballot, where he is competing with five others including his former partner and the mother of his four children, Segolene Royal. Hollande’s closest rival is Martine Aubry, labor minister from 1997 to 2002 when a left-wing government last held office. Opinion polls show Hollande, a witty if unexciting party veteran who has never been a government minister, will not only win the primary but will defeat Sarkozy by a comfortable margin if the two face off in the presidential battle next April. Victory by Numbers The novelty of the primary contest, which goes to a second round on Oct. 16 if Sunday’s winner does not secure an outright majority, may give the Socialists a boost if it generates a healthy turnout and a clear-cut winner, political analysts say. Polling stations will close at 1700 GMT and results are expected late in the evening. Millions have tuned into live television debates between the Socialist candidates in the past three weeks as the novelty of the primary appears to have captured the popular imagination. Sarkozy’s UMP party, which criticized the Socialists’ motives for the innovation at the outset, are considering doing the same, not in time for the upcoming presidential election but the one after it, according to Prime Minister Francois Fillon. If opinion polls are correct, Sarkozy remains highly unpopular and voters are ready to see the left take power. Parliamentary elections will be held on the heels of the presidential election, with the first ballot on April 22 and the run-off on May 6. The front-runners in Sunday’s contest have sparred regularly but gently about policy alternatives but not the need to reduce France’s public deficit. Their party manifesto established the basic thrust of their policy, which is to repeal 50 billion euros 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.