By Brian Love
PARIS (Reuters) - The focus of France's presidential election swung on to Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Friday as the possible standard bearer of the ruling Socialists following Francois Hollande's shock announcement that he would not seek a second term.
A snap opinion poll, conducted on Thursday night after Hollande stunned France with his announcement, showed that Socialist voters and French voters as a whole wanted to see Valls win the party ticket to run for president next spring.
Hollande's dramatic withdrawal from the presidential race threw the search for a new leader of the Left wide open.
But his move does not change the broad expectations that any Socialist candidate - Valls included - will be eliminated in a first round of voting next April, and that the president will be chosen via in a May 7 runoff vote between the center-right candidate Francois Fillon and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Valls, 54, a former interior minister who is regarded as France's "top cop" because of his tough stance on law and order, broadly represents the centrist economic leadings that prompted many left-wing voters to turn their back on Hollande.
Many traditional left-wingers have railed against what they see as his pro-business stand.
All this means he will face an uphill battle if he enters the running, both in bidding for the Socialist ticket in January, and in the presidential contest itself, where he would be boxed in on the left by people not even taking part in the Socialist primaries; veteran Jean-Luc Melenchon to his left, and centrist former economy minister Emmanuel Macron to his right.
Pursued by hordes of journalists during a visit to a center for handicapped people in the north of France on Friday morning, he was expected to declare his hand in the coming hours or possibly at a left-wing convention in Paris on Saturday.
Several opinion polls over the past week show Valls faring marginally better than Hollande would have done, but still being eliminated in the first round of the presidential election
Regarding the Socialist primary next January, however, a Harris Interactive poll showed a clear majority of respondents want to see Valls win his party ticket.
He was the preferred candidate of 24 percent of respondents, versus 14 percent who want to see left-wing firebrand rival Arnaud Montebourg win.
Among respondents who considered themselves sympathizers with the left, Valls was again the most popular, on 33 percent versus 20 for Montebourg. Among Socialist party respondents, the score was 57 percent for Valls versus 15 percent for Montebourg.
Montebourg, who was an economy minister for a spell in Hollande's government, is waging a stridently left-wing campaign - highlighting the need to protect French industry from cut-throat global competition.
Six other candidates were offered as choices, and 47 percent of people said they did not want any of the eight so far in the running in the Socialist Party primary.
Montebourg faced off against Valls in a similar primary that Hollande won in 2011 before going on to beat Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2012 presidential election. While both Montebourg and Valls were eliminated, the former's score was more than three times that of Valls.
(Reporting By Brian Love; Editing by Richard Balmforth)