Valls vs. Hamon in French Socialists' presidential primary

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Posted: Jan 29, 2017 7:03 AM
Valls vs. Hamon in French Socialists' presidential primary

PARIS (AP) — French voters on Sunday were electing the Socialist candidate who will face a tough battle against rivals from the far-left, far-right and the political center in the presidential election this spring.

The Socialist primary runoff offered a stark choice between two candidates — Benoit Hamon and former Prime Minister Manuel Valls — on opposite poles of the beleaguered party, with sharply different plans for France.

A more robust turnout than the anemic 1.6 million votes cast in the first round of the primary would help bolster the legitimacy of the runoff winner for a bruising campaign.

The increasingly uncertain presidential race was rocked this week by ethics questions faced by conservative candidate Francois Fillon. Financial prosecutors are investigating an allegedly fake but handsomely paid job held by the former prime minister's wife, Penelope.

With a headline-grabbing proposal to pay all French adults a modest monthly stipend, the 49-year-old Hamon emerged from obscurity on the Socialist left to win the primary's first round against six other candidates last weekend.

Casting his ballot Sunday in Trappes, the blue-collar town west of Paris where he is the elected lawmaker, Hamon expressed hope for high voter participation. Voting in Evry, south of Paris, Valls echoed that call. The primary was open to all voters who paid 1 euro ($1.04) and signed a document saying they share the left's values.

In the sometimes testy campaign, 54-year-old Valls emphasized his experience in government. As prime minister from 2014 to 2016, he was on the front lines of France's response to gun and suicide-bomb attacks that killed 147 people in Paris in January and November 2015. He was also in office in July 2016 when a man drove a truck into crowds in Nice, killing 86 people.

But Valls' close association with chronically unpopular President Francois Hollande, who isn't seeking a second five-year term, proved an Achilles heel against Hamon, who quit Hollande's government in 2014 amid infighting over economic policies.

Hamon, a former junior minister and briefly Valls' education minister, picked up backing from Arnaud Montebourg, another Socialist left-wing rebel who defied Hollande. The 290,000 votes — 17.5 percent of the total — cast for the former economy minister in the primary first round weren't enough to qualify him for the runoff but were expected to help Hamon defeat Valls.

Casting his ballot for Hamon, Paris voter Nicolas Ciron said he wrestled with the choice. He also expressed concern about the Socialists' ability to rally behind the eventual winner.

"It was not an obvious vote," the 33-year-old said. "It's going to be really hard to gather everyone."

Hamon's signature proposal is for a 750 euros ($800) "universal income" that would be gradually granted to all adults. Valls sharply criticized the idea as unrealistic and ruinous, both for France and the Socialist Party's credibility.

The first order of business for Sunday's winner will be trying to unite the Socialist family that has been torn for years between advocates of a radical left, including Hamon and Montebourg, and others sharing center-left views, like Valls and Hollande.

"It's always been hard to unite the left," Hamon said as he voted.

Divisions are so deep that some of Valls' support is expected to shift to centrist Emmanuel Macron, running for president as an independent, if Hamon wins the Socialist ticket.

Early polling has suggested that the Socialist nominee will struggle to advance from the presidential election first-round in April to qualify for the runoff in May. Macron, Hollande's former economy minister, and fiery far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon are squeezing the Socialists from both sides.

But Fillon's legal problems have thrown a cloud of uncertainty over expectations of a two-horse race between him and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

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Nadine Achoui-Lesage in Paris contributed to this report.