French Socialists Set to Pick Candidate to Challenge Sarkozy

French President Nicolas Sarkozy
French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Photographer: Michele Tantussi/Bloomberg

France’s Socialist Party supporters began voting to choose their candidate to challenge President Nicolas Sarkozy in the May 2012 elections in a runoff that is attracting more voters than the first round, early returns show.

Francois Hollande, 57, leads the race, having gotten the most votes in the first round of the party’s primaries. His rival for the nomination, former Labor Minister and party chief Martine Aubry, 61, has criticized him for lacking experience. Hollande has never served in a government.

“They haven’t shown any major differences in their proposals,” said Erwan Lestrohan, a pollster at Paris-based LH2 Institute. “She is more left-wing, he is more centrist.”

The two finalists voted earlier today, Aubry in Lille, the city where she is mayor, and Hollande in the central town of Tulle, where he was mayor from 2001 to 2008. Harlem Desir, who heads the Socialists during the campaign, said turnout for today’s runoff was 869,000 at 1 p.m., an 8.6 percent increase from the same time during the first round. About 2.7 million people cast a ballot on Oct. 9. Voting stations across France will close at 7 p.m. local time.

‘Only Goal’

“The only goal is for the Left to win in 2012,” Hollande said after voting today. Aubry called “every French person to vote with their belief and their heart for a real change,” after casting her ballot. Their comments were both aired on I-Tele cable news channel.

Aubry may struggle to close the 8.8 percentage-point gap that separated her from Hollande in the first round. Polls show that Hollande would win the presidential elections if they were held now. Sarkozy has yet to declare his intention to seek a second term. Le Figaro newspaper yesterday said Sarkozy may declare his intention to run in February after he started campaigning last week.

The two finalists focused more on social issues and protectionism in the final days of their campaigns, mirroring the stance of Arnaud Montebourg, who placed third in the first round and whose supporters they seek. The lawmaker advocates “de-globalization,” more financial regulation and steps toward re-nationalizing French banks. Montebourg said Oct. 14 he will vote for Hollande today.

“Mathematically, Hollande should win but Aubry’s odds may get a boost from voters who believe in a more left-wing candidate and who voted for Arnaud Montebourg last Sunday,” Lestrohan said.

Few Differences

Today’s election isn’t “a done deal,” Hollande said in an interview in yesterday’s Liberation newspaper, adding that he and his rival don’t have clear-cut political differences. “The choice is less between two political lines than between two ways of doing things, two personalities,” Hollande said.

Aubry, who suggested Hollande would represent the “soft left,” accused him of having a right-wing bent.

“It always disturbs me when a man of the left uses the terminology of the right,” she told RTL radio after their final televised debate Oct. 12.

In the debate, both said the state must take greater control of banks and called for increased regulation of global financial transactions. They said the country’s banks should be under state supervision if they receive government aid.

Greek Default

Hollande also said he sees a Greek default before the end of the year. Aubry said “the banks must pay” for their Greek investments. Both called for increased global regulation and barriers to trade if countries, including China, don’t respect commercial and environmental rules.

Hollande declined to call for increased taxes on wealthy people on Oct. 12, while Aubry suggested that she would add a new tax bracket for those earning more than 250,000 euros ($347,000) per year.

Sixty-one percent of French voters say Hollande, who heads the local council of Correze in central France, is more likely to bring the Socialist Party back to power, 17 years after its previous presidential victory. That compares to 43 percent of the voters who say Aubry, the mayor of the northern city of Lille, will be the winner, according to an LH2 poll for the weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur. The Paris-based polling institute surveyed 953 people aged 18 or older Oct. 7-8. LH2 didn’t publish a margin of error.

Hollande, the former head of the Socialist Party, secured his lead this week with the backing of three of the four candidates defeated in the first round.

Segolene Royal, the French 2007 Socialist presidential candidate, called on her supporters yesterday to vote for Hollande in the second round. Manuel Valls and Jean-Francois Baylet, who lost in the first round, also called on their supporters to vote for Hollande. Montebourg, the third-ranked candidate of the first round, disclosed his personal preference for the front-runner while avoiding an official endorsement.

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