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‘Underdog’ Hamon, ex-PM Valls to face-off in French Socialist primary

© Joel Saget, AFP | Benoît Hamon (L) and former prime minister Manuel Valls emerged as winners in the first round of France’s left-wing primaries on Sunday, January 22, 2016

Benoît Hamon and Manuel Valls on Sunday advanced to the second round of France’s left-wing primary, setting up a battle for who will represent the ruling Socialists in the upcoming presidential election, but also for the very soul of the party.

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Hamon, 49, delivered the biggest shock of a presidential race already full of surprises when he finished a decisive first on Sunday evening. The one-time underdog secured more than 36 percent of the vote in the first round of the primary organised by the Socialist Party, but that also included allied, micro-parties.

He will face off against Manuel Valls on Sunday 29th January, a former prime minister who was long been touted as the frontrunner. High-flier Valls managed to save face by garnering approximately 31 percent to make it to the final run-off.

“Left-wing constituents voted with their hearts and have not given up,” Hamon, a former education minister and admirer of US Senator Bernie Sanders, said in a victory speech at his campaign’s headquarters in Paris.

His triumph at the ballot box was further sweetened by an endorsement by rival Arnaud Montebourg, who came in third place with around 18 percent of votes.

Speaking to supporters late on Sunday, Valls described the upcoming duel as a simple choice between “certain defeat” in the presidential election if Hamon is chosen, and “possible victory” if he wins.

>> Read more: 'How ‘moderniser’ Hamon and ‘tough man’ Valls plan to win over France’s left'

Vincent Peillon, who came in fourth place with around 7 percent of votes, also addressed the press following the primary results, but refused to back either Hamon or Valls.

Battle for the party

“Clearly this is going to be major choice for the Socialist Party,” said FRANCE 24’s politics editor Marc Perelman, noting that Hamon and Valls represent clear opposites within the party.

Valls, 54, has angered many on the left of the Socialist party by championing pro-market economics alongside President François Hollande, while approving a state of emergency restricting civil liberties after a series of terrorist attacks.

Hamon and Montebourg are among a list of former ministers who quit Hollande’s government in protest over the pro-business policies of the current Socialist government.

Hamon – who supports implementing a universal basic income [of approximately 750 euros a month] and shortening the working week from 35 to 32 hours – addressed this rift directly as he proclaimed victory on Sunday. “By putting your faith in me, you have sent a clear message of hope and renewal, the desire to write a new chapter for the left in France,” he said.

>> Read more: 'Outsider Hamon has momentum ahead of left-wing primary vote'

“Not that long ago Valls said that there were two lefts that could no longer be reconciled,” FRANCE 24’s Perelman explained. “But those two lefts will now be face-to-face next Sunday. The question for the Socialists is, does the party go with Valls towards the centre, or with Hamon to the left?”

Two million voters

Around 2 million people participated in Sunday’s primary, which was open to any eligible French voter or Socialist Party member who was willing to pay 1 euro.

While turnout might have exceeded the 1.5-million target set by Socialist Party organisers, it was still less than half of the 4.3 million people who cast their ballots in France’s conservative primary in November.

Experts said it will likely prove difficult for either Hamon or Valls to re-energise the party, after five years of Socialist rule marked by immigration fears and stubbornly high unemployment.

“Tomorrow the Socialist Party chiefs are going to congratulate themselves on the great turnout, because no one would have predicted they would get that many voters,” Cecile Alduy, an associate professor at Stanford University, told FRANCE 24.

“At the same time, 2 million people is not that much, and also it's people who are extremely politically active and on the left. Down the road, the Socialists are going to go against a much bigger electorate that is not going to be responsive to the same kinds of arguments,” she added.

Bracing for fifth

This view is played out in French opinion polls, with the mainstream left not playing well with voters ahead of France’s presidential and parliamentary elections this spring.

Whoever wins the left-wing primary is expected to finish in only fifth place in the race for the Elysée Palace.

Opinions polls indicate Hamon or Valls will likely lose out to conservative nominee [from les Republicains party] François Fillon, but also far-right leader Marine Le Pen, radical-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and independent centrist Emmanuel Macron.

Hanon and Valls will face off in a last televised debate on Wednesday, before the second round poll on January 29.

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