French Socialists begin primary debates as woes mount

Paris (AFP) - France's ruling Socialist party hold their first televised debate Thursday seeking a presidential candidate who can save the party's blushes in an election race currently being led by the right.

As seven candidates including former prime minister Manuel Valls prepare to do battle, a new poll published Thursday showed the Socialists could face a rout in the vote.

The online survey carried out last week suggested that whoever wins the Socialist nomination could finish a humiliating fifth, or worse, in the first round in April.

Valls, who served under outgoing President Francois Hollande until December, is seen as the Socialist frontrunner but is forecast to garner just 11 percent of votes if picked to represent the party in government since 2012.

The poll of 1,000 people by BVA-Salesforce echoed previous projections that the election will come down to a second-round battle between rightwing nominee Francois Fillon and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.

Fillon is currently forecast to win that contest but his support has dipped slightly compared to a similar survey in early December.

Importantly for the Socialist candidate, the polls shows centrist independent Emmanuel Macron -- Hollande's reformist former economy minister -- chasing hard in third position with around 16-20 percent.

Thursday's televised debate is the first of three crammed in before the first round of the primary on January 22.

Luc Carvounas, a senator and Valls loyalist, said the challenge would be to "create interest and make everyone want to take part in the primary."

The vote risks paling in comparison to a primary contest held by the rightwing Republicans party in November which saw socially conservative former prime minister Fillon come from behind to snatch a surprise victory.

Over four million people cast ballots in that vote, which Fillon won by trouncing ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy and Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppe.

French voters say employment, security and immigration are among their top concerns after four years under unpopular President Francois Hollande, who decided not to seek re-election in December.

The contest is seen as highly unpredictable, with the full range of candidates unknown and Western democracies in a period of tumult due to a surge in anti-elite and anti-immigration feeling.

- In Macron's shadow -

The Socialists say they are expecting a few million voters to turn out to pick their contender in the two-round contest on January 22 and 29.

The ballot is open to all voters who pay one euro ($1.05) and profess to adhere to leftist values.

Valls, 54, needs to put in a strong performance in the debates to see off strong challenges from Montebourg, a champion of state interventionism who is also 54, and another leftist ex-minister Benoit Hamon.

Hamon, 49, is seen as the furthest to the left of the three. He has called for the introduction of a universal wage and pledged to tackle rampant inequality in the French school system.

The four other candidates are former education minister Vincent Peillon, ecologist Francois de Rugy, ex-MEP Jean-Luc Bennahmias and radical left candidate Sylvia Pinel.

Looming large over the contest are Macron and Communist-backed firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, both of whom threaten to siphon votes away from the Socialists.

Macron, a 39-year-old former Rothschild banker who positions himself as "neither of the right or the left", has drawn large crowds at his rallies.

"The spring will be ours!" he told around 2,000 supporters in the central city of Clermont-Ferrand at the weekend.