Hollande set to challenge Sarkozy in presidential vote

The French Socialist Party has chosen its candidate, Francois Hollande

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Francois Hollande has been elected the French Socialist Party's candidate for the 2012 presidential vote, where he is expected to face Nicolas Sarkozy.

His rival, Martine Aubry, conceded victory in Sunday's primary run-off before final results were known.

In his victory speech, Mr Hollande said he would champion those who could "no longer bear" Mr Sarkozy's policies.

Opinion polls suggest he could beat President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has not formally declared his own bid.

Mr Hollande had a lead of 56% to 44% over his rival in the count.

It is the first time voters have taken part in a US-style primary race, and some 2.7 million voters took part in the run-off.

One of Mr Sarkozy's top allies dismissed Mr Hollande's election result as weak.

'A new left'

Analysis

Francois Hollande has been lucky. He was lucky because the man tipped to win the Socialist primary - Dominique Strauss-Kahn - disqualified himself in a sexual escapade in a Manhattan hotel. And he was lucky because his eventual rival - former minister Martine Aubry - is hardly the most charismatic of politicians.

But Francois Hollande also worked hard for this victory. More than a year ago he started planning for the leadership race. He has criss-crossed the country building up networks of support. And he has staked out a careful position that manages to look both left-wards (to the party's official programme and its commitments to the public sector) and centre-wards (with promises of fiscal responsibility to get France through the debt crisis).

Now comes the hard part. Francois Hollande has shown that he is a consensual figure, with a genial character that makes him hard to dislike. But does he really have what it takes to go through months of brutal campaigning against Nicolas Sarkozy - and then lead France through the difficult years that surely lie ahead?

Remember: this is a man who has never once in his life held ministerial office, even at a junior level. But then, as his supporters say, nor had Barack Obama.

Speaking at Socialist headquarters in Paris, Mr Hollande said: "I have heard the anger and concerns of a great number of people, unemployment, job insecurity, high rents, healthcare which is becoming more and more inaccessible.

"I have noticed the concerns about our common future, the failures of globalisation, the failings of Europe, the environment."

"France must find a plan again which will give it back all of its meaning," Mr Hollande said, adding that he would "show a different vision of the presidency".

He would, he said, be "the candidate of respect and dialogue".

"I want to offer France's youth a better life than ours: I want to put the magic back in the French dream," he said.

In her concession speech, Ms Aubry, who leads the Socialist Party, said she welcomed Mr Hollande's victory and would invest all her "strength and energy to ensure that he is the president of France seven months from now".

Mr Hollande became the party favourite after the withdrawal of previous Socialist front-runner Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former head of the International Monetary Fund who was arrested in New York earlier this year on suspicion of attempted rape, a charge later dropped.

Francois Hollande, who led the party for more than a decade before Ms Aubry, is seen as a genial, consensus politician but critics point to his lack of experience in government, says the BBC's Hugh Schofield in Paris.

Mr Sarkozy, who won power in 2007 after 12 years of fellow conservative Jacques Chirac, has yet to declare a re-election bid but is widely expected to do so.

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There is anger to be tapped into and exploited by a Socialist candidate”

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Opinion polls suggest he would trail Mr Hollande in the election, which takes place in two rounds on 22 April and 6 May.

Jean-Francois Cope, who leads Mr Sarkozy's UMP party, sought to play down Mr Hollande's victory.

Speaking on France 2 TV, he said the Socialist candidate should have taken "65% or 70%" after all the endorsements he had received from his rivals in the first round.

Dismissing Mr Hollande and Ms Aubry as "two sides of the same coin", he said the leaders of the right and centre-right would now seek to "re-balance the debate", and the Socialists would have "a lot of questions" to answer.

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