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Valls Ex-PM fights leftist outsider for French presidential nod

Hamon scored 36.3 percent with Valls trailing on 31.1 percent, according to results published late Sunday.

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Benoit Hamon (left) will fight ex-prime minister Manuel Valls for the French Socialist presidential nomination play

Benoit Hamon (left) will fight ex-prime minister Manuel Valls for the French Socialist presidential nomination

(AFP/File)

Leftist 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 serious contender when the campaign began in December, the 49-year-old former education minister placed himself in the driving seat with what he called a "message of hope and renewal".

With Europe apparently shifting rightwards and the deeply unpopular President Francois Hollande ruling himself out, the Socialist primary has been billed as a fight -- a left-leaning faction represented by Hamon versus Valls' centrist, pro-business camp.

The leftist Liberation daily on Monday billed the second round as a battle between "a left that takes charge versus a left that dreams."

Hamon scored 36.3 percent with Valls trailing on 31.1 percent, according to results published late Sunday.

Between 1.6 million and 1.7 million voted, the head of the primary organising committee, Christophe Borgel, told RTL radio -- less than half the four million who took part in the first round of the rightwing primary.

Maverick former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg was eliminated with 17 percent and immediately threw his support behind Hamon.

But whoever wins the Socialist nomination faces long odds.

Polls show the presidential election coming down to a contest between conservative ex-premier Francois Fillon, far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old former economy minister.

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

Choosing Hamon, he said, would mean "certain defeat" in the presidential election whereas he offered a "possible victory".

Former French education minister Benoit Hamon greets supporters in Paris on January 22, 2017 play

Former French education minister Benoit Hamon greets supporters in Paris on January 22, 2017

(AFP)

Some Socialist supporters said Hamon was a breath of fresh air.

The mild-mannered ex-minister said he offered hope to a party ailing after five years under Hollande -- with Valls by his side until December -- beset by economic sluggishness, labour protests and infighting among the Socialists.

His supporters had voted "through conviction and not out of resignation", Hamon said.

Hamon performed strongly in three TV debates crammed into a short campaign, attracting attention with a proposal to give the poor and people aged 18-25 a "universal income" rising from 600 euros to 750 euros ($640 to $800) a month.

He also campaigned heavily on the environment.

Valls poured scorn on the universal income proposal, saying it would ruin France.

The two men face off in a TV debate on Wednesday.

The photogenic Macron has stolen the limelight from his former Socialist government colleagues in recent weeks, with his campaign speeches packed to overflowing.

But with rightwing ideas apparently taking root across Europe, most opinion polls show a Fillon-Le Pen presidential showdown as the most likely scenario in May.

Spanish-born Valls appears to have been punished for his association with Hollande, struggling at times in a contest he had been expected to dominate.

He set out to modernise his party but has struggled to unite his camp, with his rivals accusing him of betraying leftist ideals by forcing through labour market reforms.

Tactical voting?

Manuel Valls served as prime minister under outgoing French President Francois Hollande until his resignation in December 2016 play

Manuel Valls served as prime minister under outgoing French President Francois Hollande until his resignation in December 2016

(AFP)

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.

Macron himself has ruled out a pact with the Socialists, promising that his En Marche (On the Move) party will field hundreds of candidates in parliamentary elections in June.

Communist-backed firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, who like Macron is standing as an independent, also threatens to split the leftwing vote.

The influence of Le Pen, who leads the anti-immigration National Front (FN), has overshadowed the entire 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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