French voters go to polls to choose Socialist presidential candidate

He is tipped for further gains if, as expected, Hamon wins the Socialist nod over Valls, with Socialist moderates turned off by Hamon's tax-and-spend programme expected to decamp to Macron.

Mr Hamon's win sends the divided Socialists, weakened by the unpopularity of outgoing President Francois Hollande, into a tough presidential battle behind a candidate with limited government experience and hard-left politics that could alienate some centre-left Socialist voters.

With a headline-grabbing proposal to pay all French adults a modest monthly stipend, Hamon, 49, emerged from obscurity on the Socialist left to win the primary's first round against six other candidates last weekend.

Hamon is favourite to beat Valls in the Socialist primary's head-to-head vote, but neither man has much chance of winning the presidential race itself after five years of unpopular Socialist rule.

Polls also suggest that Hamon might not even make the second and final round of the vote against Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front Party, largely defined by xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric.

Both Valls and Hamon have insisted that everything is still to play for.

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With the ruling party having settled on its candidate, the race for the presidential Elysee Palace begins in earnest, although the outcome of the two-round general election vote in April and May looks increasingly uncertain.

Hamon, a former junior minister and briefly Valls' education minister, picked up backing from Arnaud Montebourg, another Socialist left-wing rebel who defied Hollande.

Having proposed a universal income - initially 750 euros per person per month, or about $800 - that would cost close to 30 percent of France's gross domestic product every year, Hamon has consistently polled behind both the race's centrist candidate, Emmanuel Macron, and its leading conservative contender, François Fillon, now mired in a public spending scandal.

Fillon is now weakened by a media storm around a paid job for his wife as his assistance and the Socialists elected Hamon. Supporters of the business-friendly Valls, who like Macron has steered centrist policies, are likely to give their vote now to the popular ex-banker.

Polls in Sunday's primary runoff are due to close at 1800 UTC.

Valls said Friday that Fillon's woes showed that the election "was not over".

  • Megan Austin