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Ex-PM Valls fights outsider for French presidential nod

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Former prime minister and candidate for the left-wing primaries, Manuel Valls gestures before speaking following the first round of the left-wing primary for the 2017 French presidential election, on January 22, 2017 at the Latin American House in Paris. Outsider Benoit Hamon came first in the French Socialists' presidential primary on January 22, 2017 and will stand against former prime minister Manuel Valls in a January 29 runoff, partial results showed. With just over one-third of polling stations reporting, Hamon scored 35.21 percent to 31.56 percent for Valls, with former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg eliminated along with four other candidates, party electoral official Thomas Clay announced. / AFP PHOTO / Eric FEFERBERG

Former prime minister and candidate for the left-wing primaries, Manuel Valls gestures before speaking following the first round of the left-wing primary for the 2017 French presidential election, on January 22, 2017 at the Latin American House in Paris. Outsider Benoit Hamon came first in the French Socialists’ presidential primary on January 22, 2017 and will stand against former prime minister Manuel Valls in a January 29 runoff, partial results showed. With just over one-third of polling stations reporting, Hamon scored 35.21 percent to 31.56 percent for Valls, with former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg eliminated along with four other candidates, party electoral official Thomas Clay announced. / AFP PHOTO / Eric FEFERBERG

Outsider Benoit Hamon will fight ex-prime minister Manuel Valls for the French Socialist presidential nomination next Sunday, after winning the first round of a primary seen as a battle for the party’s soul.

Dismissed as a lightweight when the campaign began in December, the 49-year-old former education minister who wants to tax robots and introduce a universal basic income surged from behind with a raft of innovative ideas.

Provisional results showed Hamon scoring 36.3 percent to 31.1 percent for Valls, who campaigned as the most experienced candidate.

Valls, who was premier under outgoing President Francois Hollande until resigning in December to try to succeed him, went on the offensive against Hamon Sunday evening.

Picking a diehard leftist would mean “certain defeat” in an election shaping up as a contest between the right, far-right and centre, he said. He at least offered “possible victory”, he argued.

The primary has cemented the deep divisions within the Socialists between what Valls once called “two irreconcilable lefts” — a hard-left faction represented by Hamon versus his own centre-left, pro-business camp.

Liberation daily on Monday called it a contest between “a left that takes charge and a left that dreams.”

– ‘Credible left’ –
Whoever wins the nomination faces long odds.

Polls show the presidential race being led by conservative ex-premier Francois Fillon, far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old centrist former economy minister.

Communist-backed firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, who refused to take part in the primary, threatens to further split the leftwing vote.

With Europe apparently lurching towards the right, Le Pen and Fillon are expected to be the two finalists. But the photogenic Macron is nipping at their heels.

He stole the limelight from his former Socialist government colleagues in recent weeks, with his campaign rallies packed to overflowing.

A senior aide to Macron said he was hoping to face Hamon rather than Valls.

“Hamon would be the best opponent for us,” the aide told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Over 1.6 million people took part in the primary, the head of the organising committee, Christophe Borgel, told AFP — less than half the four million who voted in the first round of autumn’s rightwing primary.

Maverick former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg was eliminated with 17 percent and immediately threw his support behind Hamon. Four other candidates took less than seven percent each.

A defiant Valls, 54, told his supporters the Socialist primary runoff would be “a clear choice between unachievable promises and a credible left”.

But some Socialist supporters said Hamon was a breath of fresh air after five years of pragmatic rule by Hollande and Valls that failed to revive the economy.

“My programme is a long-term programme… There is nothing utopian about it,” Hamon said on France Inter radio.

– Le Pen looms large –
He performed strongly in three TV debates crammed into a short campaign, attracting attention with a proposal for a “universal living income” to be phased in over five years, rising from 600 euros to 750 euros ($640 to $800) a month.

He also campaigned heavily on the environment, called for a tax on robots that replace workers, and urged the legalisation of marijuana.

His rivals had poured scorn on his proposals, saying they would ruin France.

Spanish-born Valls appears to have been punished for his association with Hollande and his use of decrees as premier to push through unpopular labour reforms.

He set out to modernise his party but has struggled to unite his camp.

Some Socialist heavyweights have hinted they could abandon their party’s nominee and back Macron instead if he looks to have a better chance of reaching the second round of the presidential election against Le Pen.

The influence of Le Pen, who leads the anti-immigration National Front (FN), has overshadowed the presidential campaign so far.

She told a meeting of rightwing populist parties in Germany on Saturday that Europe was about to “wake up” following the victory of Donald Trump in the US election and the British vote to leave the European Union.



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