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In race to unseat Sarkozy, French choose Hollande as chief leftist presidential challenger
PARIS (AP) ' The resurgent French left, riding on popular anger at conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy and global financial markets, endorsed former Socialist Party chief Francois Hollande on Sunday as its candidate for next year's presidential elections.
Voter worries about high unemployment, spending cuts and what to do about high state debt formed the backdrop for Sunday's Socialist Party primary, and are likely to dominate the overall presidential campaign.
Hollande, a 57-year-old legislator and moderate leftist, is a low-key consensus builder who says his main selling point is that he's not the attention-grabbing Sarkozy. Hollande was the longtime partner of the Socialists' last presidential candidate, Segolene Royal.
Hollande has no grand proposals for solving the euro debt crisis, which is costing France billions and unsettling markets the world over or for awakening growth in the world's fifth-largest economy. Or for solving tensions with immigrants.
And he's little known outside France, a potential handicap for someone who wants to run a nuclear-armed nation and diplomatic power. Sarkozy's conservatives swiftly criticized his victory as shallow.
Yet opinion polls suggest Hollande could easily unseat Sarkozy, who is widely expected to seek a second five-year term in elections in April and May. Leftist voters see Hollande as their most electable candidate, as they hunger for the Socialists' first presidential victory since 1988.
With 2.3 million votes counted after Sunday's run-off voting, the Socialist Party said 56 percent of the ballots were for Hollande and 44 percent for his challenger Martine Aubry, author of France's 35-hour workweek law.
The party estimates that more than 2.7 million people voted in Sunday's run-off, open to any voters who declare loyalty to leftist values.
Early this year, the Socialists' best hope for toppling Sarkozy was Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who led the International Monetary Fund until he was jailed in May in the United States on charges he tried to rape a New York hotel maid. Prosecutors later dropped the case, but Strauss-Kahn's reputation and presidential ambitions crashed.
Hollande made few promises in his three victory speeches, instead focusing on the need to keep the long-divided French left united behind him.
"I perceived the worries that surround our common future: the disorders of finance, the excesses of globalization, the insufficiencies of Europe and the multiple attacks on our environment," he said in one speech.
Later, he noted recent anti-capitalist protests around Europe and said such anger is mounting in France, too. "We have to be capable of ... hearing these cries, these alerts that are rising in our country."
Hollande's program calls for more spending to reverse cuts in education by Sarkozy's government, a new work contract to encourage companies to hire young people, and focus on reducing France's high budget deficit. It says little about international affairs, other than calling for an unspecified "pact" with Germany, the EU's economic engine, to spur on the now-troubled European project.
Hollande will now face questions about how he would keep France competitive at a time when sluggish growth has reined in state spending and emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil keep booming.
Hollande says trimming state debt is a priority, but has kept to Socialist dogma on issues such as shielding citizens from the whims of the financial markets and raising taxes on the rich.
Valerie Rosso-Debord of Sarkozy's UMP party dismissed the Socialist Party's jobs proposals and spending plans as "unrealistic and costly."
"The French should know that none of this will stand up, and at the end, they will have to pay the bill," she said Sunday night.
The U.S.-styled primary, the first of its kind in France, was designed in part to help Socialists overcome years of dissension in their ranks. While Socialists dominate local and regional politics, they've had only one president over the past half-century, Francois Mitterrand.
Aubry, who had sought to become France's first female president, quickly conceded defeat in Sunday's voting. She and Hollande led the first round of Socialist primary voting a week ago.
Among the losers in that round was Royal, the mother of Hollande's four children. They split up after her defeat to Sarkozy in 2007 but stood side-by-side during Hollande's victory appearance Sunday in a clear message of unity.
When Hollande led the Socialist Party from 1999-2008, the party was weakened and badly fractured. His critics note that he has never run a government ministry, while supporters praise his sense of humor and ability to bring people together.
In Paris' touristic and bohemian Montmartre neighborhood, voters streamed steadily into one polling station at an elementary school near the Sacre Coeur basilica.
"It'd be great to have a woman president," said Michelle Joly, 44, an unemployed former human resources director, who voted for Aubry. "The programs of Aubry and Hollande are a bit 'six of one, half a dozen of the other.'"
Joly's husband, Jean Audouard, however, voted for Hollande, despite his reputation for being too soft.
"I like his ability to unite, his humor," said the 50-year-old school director. "I think Sarkozy isn't suited to France today ' he's not a unifier at a time when we need cohesion."
Associated Press writers Sylvie Corbet, Cecile Brisson and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.