French Socialists to choose presidential nominee

By JAMEY KEATEN | October 19, 2011 | 1:56 AM EDT

A poster representing the front page of a French magazine showing the two socialists candidates Francois Hollande, left, and Martine Aubry is displayed at a newspaper kiosk before the second round of the primary elections to chose a Socialist party candidate for the 2012 French presidential elections, in Nice, southeastern France, Friday, Oct. 14, 2011. The poster reads "Primary,Tension ahead of runoff vote". (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau )

PARIS (AP) — France's Socialists and sympathizers on Sunday are choosing their nominee for next year's presidential election — an expected showdown with embattled conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The main opposition party was holding a runoff to choose its standard-bearer as many French people worry about high state debt, cuts to education spending, anemic economic growth and lingering unemployment.

The contest pits current party boss Martine Aubry against her predecessor, Francois Hollande. He is the former partner of the Socialists' last presidential nominee, Segolene Royal. Aubry is best known as the author of France's fabled 35-hour workweek law passed in the late 1990s.

Aubry and Hollande were the survivors as the six-person Socialist field was winnowed down last week in the first phase of the unprecedented party primary in which more than 2 million people cast ballots.

Starting with Charles de Gaulle in 1958, France has had a string of conservative presidents over the past half-century, but only one Socialist: Francois Mitterrand.

The party's primary this year has been designed in part to help overcome years of dissension within its ranks. The primary is open to voters beyond those in the Socialist Party, though some conditions apply.

Hollande, the top vote-getter in the first round, has since received expressions of support from the other four candidates who lost out last Sunday — a tacit sign that a Socialist victory is their highest priority.

"If Martine Aubry had been ahead, and Francois Hollande behind, I would have chosen Martine Aubry," Arnaud Montebourg, who placed third last week after staking out the party's left wing, told i-Tele TV network.

Both Aubry and Hollande say trimming state debt is a priority, but have kept to Socialist party dogma on issues such as shielding citizens from the whims of the financial markets and raising taxes on the rich.

The party's nominee will face questions about how to keep France competitive at a time when sluggish growth will rein in state spending and emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil keep booming.

Hollande, seen as a party moderate who favors greater integration with Europe, is little-known outside of France and has provided no dramatic proposals for saving the euro, shrinking debts, solving tensions with immigrants or other French woes.

Aubry has repeated her hopes for "a strong left" to face Sarkozy — seen by many as a jab at Hollande — and insisted she would unite ideological allies such as Green Party supporters for the presidential race finale.

In an interview published Saturday in Le Parisien newspaper, Aubry said the phrase "soft with the weak, and hard on the powerful" was one that fits her well.

Recent polls suggest Aubry and Hollande could beat Sarkozy in the presidential election next spring. The incumbent's favorability ratings have hovered near the 30-percent level for months, but he is a strong campaigner and senses a rightward-majority tilt in the French electorate.

Sarkozy, who was elected to a five-year term in 2007, has not announced whether he will run again, but most political observers expect that he will.