By Leigh Thomas
PARIS (Reuters) - Benoit Hamon, a former Socialist education minister on the left of the party, won the first round of a vote to pick a Socialist presidential candidate on Sunday and was set to meet ex-prime minister Manuel Valls in a runoff, partial results showed.
Hamon, 48, who was sacked from the government of President Francois Hollande for criticizing his economic policies, had won 35.2 percent of the vote and Valls, a pro-business Hollande loyalist in government, about 31 percent with about half of the total votes counted.
The two men will go face-to-face in a knockout on Jan. 29 to decide who will be the Socialist candidate in the presidential election in spring.
After five years of deeply unpopular rule, Hollande announced late last year that he would not run for a second term and opinion polls indicate that no Socialist candidate has much chance of getting beyond the first round of the election in April-May.
For decades one of the main political forces in France, the Socialist party has become marginalized as Hollande failed to turn the economy around and alienated left-wing voters with his economic policies.
But the final choice in the second stage of the Socialist primary in a week's time could have an impact on the election fortunes of the front-runners for the Elysee - conservative Francois Fillon, far-right leader Marine Le Pen and independent centrist Emmanuel Macron.
Polls indicate Fillon, a former prime minister who has The Republicans ticket, is most likely to emerge as the winner in the race for the Elysee if he goes up against National Front leader Le Pen in a May 7 head-to-head.
But Macron, a 39-year-old former banker and one-time economy minister who pushes a centrist agenda and tries to appeal to both left and Right is attracting large crowds to rallies and could yet upset the balance.
The Spanish-born Valls, who implemented pro-business policies under Hollande to the consernation of the traditional left-wing, appeals to a more moderate electorate and will pose a greater challenge to Macron for the center ground.
Conversely, political commentators say a traditional Socialist such as Hamon, who wants to legalize cannabis and establish a basic income level of 600 euros per month for all adults, will benefit Macron in his campaign.
Partial results showed another traditional leftwinger, former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg, trailing in third place among the seven candidates with 18.7 percent of Sunday's vote.
"Voters massively and seriously rejected those who carried out free-market, austerity policies during the presidential term," Montebourg said in a reference to Valls, calling on those who voted for him to back Hamon.
Hamon and Montebourg were kicked out of Valls's government in 2014 for criticizing its economic policies, which they said were too business-friendly.
The program of Fillon, seen as the election front-runner, includes cutting business taxes, relaxing labor laws and scrapping the 35-hour working week in an attempt to boost growth, while also eliminating half a million public sector jobs as part of a drive to shrink the state sector.
Anyone who pledged allegiance to the political values of the left and paid a one euro fee were able to vote in the primary. Organizers of the primary said there had been a turnout close to two million.
Party chief Jean-Christophe Cambadelis said before the vote that a turnout of between 1.5 and 2 million from among France's 44 million voters would mean the first round had been a success, and that he still believed the election was winnable.
"The death knell of the Socialist party has been rung too early," he told Le Parisien newspaper.
(Editing by Richard Balmforth)