French Socialist Party To Pick Presidential Candidate

This weekend, the opposition Socialist party in France will choose its presidential candidate in a second round of primary voting. It's the first time a French political party has held an open primary — up till now, candidates have been chosen by party insiders. Sunday's winner will face-off against President Nicolas Sarkozy in next May's presidential race.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's presidential election season not only in the U.S. but also in France. And one French opposition party is borrowing a page from the American political playbook. This weekend, the Socialist Party will choose its presidential candidate in a primary.

As Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris, that's a first for France.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: There's campaign fever in the air in France. For the first time, a presidential candidate will be chosen in what is being billed as Une Primaire a l'Americaine, or an American-style primary.

Six socialist presidential candidates have been crisscrossing the country in a frenzy of campaigning that featured several live televised debates. The primary is open to any French voter who pays the princely sum of one euro, about a dollar 35, and signs a pledge to support the values of the left.

Jean-Marc Illouz, a correspondent at France 2 Television, says voter turnout has been high because people are inspired.

JEAN-MARC ILLOUZ: Instead of having a socialist party congress full of smoke-filled rooms and backroom deals, sometimes very ideological, the French voters and the socialist voters got real arguments by people that were very articulate.

BEARDSLEY: The first round took place last weekend. Now, the top two candidates, Francois Hollande and Martine Aubry, will face each other in a runoff Sunday.

FRANCOIS HOLLANDE: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Each held political rallies Thursday evening in a last attempt to woo voters, but their platforms are similar and many say Hollande and Aubry are equally uncharismatic. Fifty-seven-year-old Francois Hollande is the front runner. The placid and portly former socialist party chief has slimmed down and donned stylish glasses - adjustments clearly aimed at looking more presidential.

MARTINE AUBRY: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Sixty-one-year-old Aubry, author of "The 35 Hour Work Week," is more doctrinaire and will have less appeal among mainstream voters, but both candidates have been forced to court the party's left wing after a third candidate, Arnaud Montebourg, ran close behind them on a populist anti-globalization message. Elu(ph) says Montebourge hit a nerve.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Voters see the rich getting even more rich. They see the banks getting even more money and it's some kind of a leftist Tea Party. They want more controls on the banks and more taxes on the super rich and that sells pretty well.

BEARDSLEY: The man who would have been a shoe-in for the socialist nomination, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was hardly even mentioned. These days, he's only popular with comedians. Strauss-Kahn is a star on the satirical political puppet show known as "Les Guignols."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: (Foreign language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: ...where his puppet wears a leopard print bathrobe and is usually just getting out of the shower.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "LES GUIGNOLS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: (Foreign language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: But the former IMS head's fall from the pinnacle of French politics following a criminal sex scandal in New York has been anything but funny for the socialist party, says economist Michel Gaudet.

MICHEL GAUDET: (Through Translator) These candidates are just default candidates. Strauss-Kahn was by far the best. There's a lack of competence here and Sarkozy is counting on this to win.

BEARDSLEY: But the French president may need more than that. There's an anti-Sarkozy climate in France and visceral dislike of him seems to motivate some voters more than the issues.

JEREMY SHURAKI: (Foreign language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Jeremy Shuraki(ph) is one of them. Strolling with his wife and daughter, he says he's not overly impressed by the socialist economic plan, but he says it's time for Sarkozy and the right to go.

SHURAKI: It's all about the collusion between power and wealth and the way power in France has always been looking after wealth and of this elite, this French elite, which has some things very closed.

BEARDSLEY: Rock bottom in the polls, Sarkozy is said to be waiting for the right moment to announce his candidacy, but the latest opinion polls show the French president would lose to either of the two socialist frontrunners.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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