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Outsider, ex-PM to vie for French leftwing presidential nod

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The staunchly leftwing Hamon was not considered a serious contender when the campaign began but he beat Mr Valls to put himself in the driving seat for next Sunday's runoff.

[PARIS] Outsider Benoit Hamon will fight former prime minister Manuel Valls for the French Socialist presidential nomination after they progressed through the first round of the primary on Sunday, partial results showed.

The staunchly leftwing Hamon was not considered a serious contender when the campaign began but he beat Mr Valls to put himself in the driving seat for next Sunday's runoff.

With Europe shifting to the right and the deeply unpopular President Francois Hollande deciding not to run, the Socialist primary has been billed as a fight for the party's soul with a left-leaning faction battling Mr Valls' centrist vision.

Mr Hamon, a former education minister, scored just over 35 per cent to 31 per cent for Valls as ex-economy minister Arnaud Montebourg was eliminated with 18 per cent, with results from one-third of polling stations counted.

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Whoever wins the Socialist nomination faces long odds as polls currently show the presidential election will be a three-way contest between conservative ex-premier Francois Fillon, far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old former economy minister.

A defiant Valls, 54, told his supporters the Socialist primary runoff would be "a clear choice between unachievable promises and a credible left".

Mr Hamon portrayed himself as capable of bringing renewal to a Socialist party ailing after five years under Mr Hollande beset by economic sluggishness and mass protests.

Mr Hamon said his supporters had voted "through conviction and not out of resignation".

He performed strongly in three TV debates packed into a short campaign, attracting attention with a proposal to pay the unemployed and low-paid a "universal income" rising from 600 euros to 750 euros (S$915 to S$1140) a month - dismissed as ruinously expensive by other candidates.

But the photogenic Macron has stolen the limelight from his former Socialist government colleagues in recent weeks, with his campaign events packed to overflowing.

Most opinion polls currently show a Fillon-Le Pen presidential runoff as the most likely scenario, with Mr Macron scoring better than the Socialist candidate in the first round but both being knocked out.

A poll published on Thursday gave Mr Macron between 17 and 21 per cent of the first-round vote.

Mr Valls, who was slapped by a protester during campaigning, appears to have paid the price for his association with the unpopular Hollande and has struggled at times in a campaign he had been expected to dominate.

Following his elimination, Mr Montebourg threw his weight behind his former cabinet colleague Hamon, both of whom represent the Socialists' left flank.

"We left the government together, we fought together. Next Sunday I'll be voting Hamon," Mr Montebourg said.

"I voted for Benoit Hamon because to me he is the one best placed to revive the Socialist party," said voter Jean-Claude, who cast his ballot in Millau, southwestern France.

Dominique, a man in his 40s who voted in eastern Paris, said he had backed Valls.

"My main concern is that the left reaches the second round (of the presidential election). Valls is the most credible option against Macron," he said.

Mr Valls set out to modernise the Socialist party but has struggled to unite his camp, with his rivals accusing him of betraying leftist ideals by forcing through labour market reforms.

Turnout in the Socialist primary was around half of that for the centre-right Republicans primary in November.

Between 1.7 million and 1.9 million voted, according to an estimate by the Elabe polling group, compared with four million who took part in the first round of the rightwing primary.

Some Socialist heavyweights have hinted they could abandon their party's nominee and back Mr Macron instead if he looks to have a better chance of reaching the second round of the presidential election against Ms Le Pen.

Mr Macron himself has ruled out a pact with the Socialists, vowing that his En Marche (On the Move) movement will field hundreds of candidates in June parliamentary elections.

Communist-backed firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, who like Mr Macron is polling in double digits in his campaign as an independent, also threatens to split the leftwing vote.

The influence of Ms Le Pen, who leads the anti-immigration National Front (FN), has overshadowed the presidential campaign so far.

She told a meeting of rightwing populist parties in Germany on Saturday that Europe was about to "wake up" following the victory of Donald Trump in the US election and the British vote to leave the European Union.

AFP

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