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French Socialist primary set for tight runoff
Montebourg steals show in French left's primary
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1 of 2. Arnaud Montebourg, one of France's six Socialist Party primary election candidates, speaks at their party headquarters in Paris October 9, 2011.
Credit: Reuters/Pascal Rossignol
By Catherine Bremer and Brian Love
Mon Oct 10, 2011 4:00pm EDT
PARIS (Reuters) - A strong showing by hardline leftist Arnaud Montebourg in France's Socialist Party presidential primary has made the selection of a moderate candidate less of a certainty and could drag the party's 2012 campaign further to the left.
Francois Hollande, a moderate who wants to curb the public deficit and foster closer European integration, won 39 percent in Sunday's first round, beating Martine Aubry, a more old-school leftist. She secured 31 percent, according to results released Monday with 86.5 percent of the vote counted.
Hollande has for months been the Socialist favorite to challenge President Nicolas Sarkozy next April.
But the 17 percent scored by Montebourg, who wants to row back on globalization and part-nationalize banks, changes the game for the October 16 runoff -- especially as the vote was open to anyone professing leftist views, not merely party members.
He told France 2 television his showing was "a revolt by people who feel like they have been crushed by the economy and abandoned by politics."
Montebourg's votes appear at first sight more likely to go to Aubry, and Hollande may have to lean further to the left to try to clinch the candidacy.
Montebourg has yet to say who he will support in the second round. He said he would write to both Aubry and Hollande asking them to clarify their positions.
RACE "VERY OPEN"
"Things are basically very open. It's more complicated than it was before," said Francois Miquet-Marty of pollster Viavoice.
"Montebourg is closer ideologically to Aubry but the personalities will count too. This period between the two rounds is crucial. It's all about the balance between credibility and a left-wing identity. Hollande is going to have to show that he belongs to the left."
Hollande promptly backed Montebourg's idea that bailed-out banks should come under partial or total state control.
"I hear the worries of Montebourg supporters," he told France 3 television.
Opinion polls indicate that either Hollande or Aubry, both former party leaders and bitter rivals, could unseat the conservative Sarkozy if the election, scheduled for April, were held today.
A survey by the pollster LH2 Monday put the president's approval rating at 32 percent, down 2 points from September.
Investors have been relatively unfazed to date by the left's lead in opinion polls. But the prospect of an Aubry candidacy or of Hollande tilting further left could rattle some foreign observers, already fretting over France's shaky public finances and its rescue, with Belgium, of Dexia bank.
Montebourg's outspoken stance against globalization and bank sector profligacy raises the prospect of his more radical ideas, such as putting government officials with veto power on the boards of banks, being embraced by the left's candidate.
"The very big score of (Montebourg), who defended 'deglobalisation' and a line that is left of left, gives him a real influence on the ideological and political profile of the victor," the left-leaning daily Liberation said in an editorial.
VOTERS WANT CHANGE
The left is bent on ousting the conservatives from the presidential palace after three terms in opposition. Polls suggest most French want a change of government, largely owing to frustration with Sarkozy's economic management and the perception that he has done little for jobs or spending power.
Hollande, a witty if unexciting party veteran who has never been in government, has led the polls since the downfall of the party's star, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in a sex scandal.
Last month the Socialists took control of the Senate for the first time in half a century, triggering muttering in Sarkozy's UMP that he might not be its best presidential candidate.
Many voters who supported Sarkozy in 2007 for his down-to-earth manner and message of change now find him impulsive and brash, and accuse him of favoring the wealthy with tax breaks.
Focused this week on finding ways to counter a sovereign debt crisis that threatens a global recession, Sarkozy is not expected to confirm he will run for a second term until after France's G20 summit in early November.
Final results of Sunday's vote, by more than 2.5 million people, were delayed but should be in line with current figures, Socialist Party head Harlem Desir told a news conference.
Segolene Royal, Hollande's estranged partner who lost the 2007 election to Sarkozy, wept after winning just 7 percent in Sunday's vote.
Montebourg met Royal Monday, but his spokesman said that did not mean they would necessarily jointly back either Aubry or Hollande, who will face off in a TV debate Wednesday.
(Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Kevin Liffey)
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