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French Cast Ballots in Pres. Primary   01/22 10:19

   PARIS (AP) -- French left-wing voters cast ballots Sunday in a nationwide 
presidential primary aimed at producing a candidate strong enough to confront 
formidable conservative and nationalist rivals in the April-May general 
election.

   That's no easy task. France's once-powerful left is struggling for political 
survival after President Francois Hollande's pro-business reforms split his 
Socialist Party. And in a campaign marked by anti-immigrant populism and fears 
of economic stagnation, many disillusioned working class voters are abandoning 
the Socialists for far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

   Tough-talking, center-leaning former Prime Minister Manuel Valls is a 
leading contender in Sunday's first round primary, but has faced fierce attacks 
from harder-left rivals who associate him with Hollande's unpopular moves to 
relax labor protections to encourage hiring.

   Arnaud Montebourg, a former economy minister who left Hollande's government 
amid feuding over economic policies, has pledged "France first" economic 
policies and wants to require CEOs to raise employees' wages if they raise 
their own.

   Casting his ballot Sunday in central France, Montebourg said he hopes to 
"bring together the other components of the left wing and win this presidential 
election."

   Another disenchanted former government minister, Benoit Hamon, is promising 
to tax robots, legalize cannabis and give 750 euros ($800) in "universal 
income" to all French adults.

   Paris voter Francoise Danzon said he struggled to choose.

   "I think Montebourg's and Hamon's programs are really on the left side, and 
they are interesting, but I don't really believe in it totally. Because to me 
it doesn't seem really realistic," Danzon said.

   The other candidates are Vincent Peillon, Francois de Rugy, Sylvia Pinel and 
Jean-Luc Bennahmias. Hollande declined to seek re-election.

   The top two vote-getters in Sunday's primary advance to a runoff set for 
Jan. 29. For the winner, a bigger challenge comes after that, in the race for 
the two-round presidential election April 23 and May 7.

   Polls show more support for conservative candidate Francois Fillon and 
National Front leader Le Pen. The left also faces a growing challenge from 
centrist Emmanuel Macron, 39, a former investment banker who led Hollande's 
reforms as economy minister, but refused to take part in the Socialist primary. 
Far -left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon is drawing voters away from the 
establishment Socialists, too.

   Overshadowing the Socialist voting is the nationalist sentiment that helped 
fuel Donald Trump's successful campaign for the U.S. presidency and in several 
countries around Europe.

   Le Pen and other European far-right leaders came together Saturday in 
Germany in a show of strength ahead of multiple European elections this year.

   All French citizens are allowed to vote in Sunday's primary if they pay 1 
euro ($1.04) and sign a document saying they share the values of the left.

   Socialist Party leaders expect up to 2 million voters to cast ballots in the 
primary out of the more than 40 million French citizens registered on electoral 
rolls. More than 4.3 million people voted to choose the conservative nominee, 
Francois Fillon, in November.


(KA)

 
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