By Brian Love
PARIS (Reuters) - France's Socialists have the wind in their sails less than seven months from a presidential election, buoyed by the novelty of an American-style primary and the airtime access it is giving them.
The presidential favorite is a Socialist, but there is more to it than opinion polls suggesting party veteran Francois Hollande -- still relatively unknown outside France -- would easily unseat the incumbent, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy.
The country's first open-door primary is a Socialist innovation, inspired by the momentum that got Barack Obama into the White House, and conservative rivals are watching with mounting envy as millions of French tune in to hear Socialists explain why they must vote for the left after five years of Sarkozy.
One of France's more obscure TV stations said on Thursday it had drawn a record high of nearly 3.7 million viewers the previous night for a live debate between six politicians seeking to run for president next April on a Socialist Party ticket.
The LCP channel, a narrow-focus broadcaster of parliamentary affairs, was one of many TV and radio stations that seized on the novelty of a primary to turn airwaves over to the main opposition party three times in as many weeks, for debates of more than two hours of prime time media exposure.
Some 5 million people watched the first such debate on France 2 state television in mid-September, while 3.5 million tuned in to a second one on i>tele.
The battle for the Socialist ticket has also generated heavy print coverage of the policy stances, stature and body language of the six candidates, reinforcing perceptions that conservatives are less present or have less to propose.
No wonder, skeptics say, that Hollande appears to be consolidating his opinion poll lead over Sarkozy and fellow left-wingers in the primary, where the first of two rounds of voting takes place on Sunday.
Beyond who ultimately wins -- the second runoff round is set for October 16 -- the primary itself is shaping up as a triumph for the Socialists, who hope that at least a million people will take part in a contest open to any voter who pays a euro and signs a document professing support for left-wing principles.
The Socialists have organized primaries in the past but they have been limited to party cardholders, whose number is estimated at around 200,000 at best.
If they muster a turnout of a million or more, analysts say, the Socialist presidential candidate stands to gain considerable legitimacy, as long the victory in the primary is clear-cut.
Either way, Sarkozy's UMP party, initially hostile, appears to be coming to the conclusion that they will one day have to take a leaf out of their opponents' book.
UMP party chief Jean-Francois Cope had sought to cast doubt on the motives behind the Socialist primary some months ago. But Prime Minister Francois Fillon paid tribute to it this week and said the UMP should aim to do likewise, not ahead of the 2012 election but for the following presidential battle in 2017.
Hollande, whose former partner Segolene Royal is also in the running but seen unlikely to win, savored the acknowledgment from Fillon.
"It's not because he's from the right that he cannot see the utility of something that comes from the left," Hollande said in response to Fillon's endorsement on Wednesday.
Others from the UMP camp are starting to sing the same tune.
"I've always been a supporter of the primary process, which makes room for more original candidacies," said Valerie Pecresse, a young budget minister and government spokeswoman who may herself be considering a shot for the presidency in 2017.
Right now, Sarkozy has yet to declare but is widely expected to seek a second term in next April's presidential election.
He may be looking for a way to respond to all the media attention given to his political opponents on the left.
Le Figaro, a newspaper close to Sarkozy and his party, says Sarkozy's communications advisers are worried that his penchant for addressing voters in speeches may mean his words have too short a shelf-life and that he is considering issuing a letter to France's 45 million voters in early 2012, a time when many believe he will announce his re-election goal.
(Writing by Brian Love; additional reporting by Patrick Vignal and Elizabeth Pineauy; Editing by Myra MacDonald)