PARIS (Reuters) - Francois Hollande on Sunday became the French Socialist Party candidate who will try to unseat President Nicolas Sarkozy next April and return a Socialist to the Elysee Palace for the first time in 17 years.
With well over two-thirds of close to three million votes counted, Hollande’s victory in a presidential primary election runoff against Martine Aubry, a more old-school leftist, was resounding, with his score topping 56 percent.
Speaking at Socialist Party headquarters in Paris, Hollande’s sights were already on what he described as the “fierce battle” ahead, the presidential election contest that takes place in two rounds on April 22 and May 6.
“I measure the scale of the task awaiting me. It is vast. It is grave. I must rise to meet the aspirations of a French people who are sick and tired of the policies of Nicolas Sarkozy,” Hollande said.
The polls suggest French voters are ready to put the left back in the Elysee Palace and oust the unpopular Sarkozy, who is widely expected to seek a second five-year term.
It would be the first presidential election win since the late Francois Mitterrand was re-elected in 1988.
The left’s runaway favorite to become president had been former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn but his IMF career and presidential hopes foundered when he was arrested in New York in May on charges of sexually assaulting a hotel maid. The charges have since been dropped.
The ease with which the less internationally renowned Hollande and Aubry filled his shoes as popular alternatives suggests many voters are simply weary of Sarkozy and his economic policies.
Hollande has never held a national government post, unlike former labor minister Aubry, architect of France’s 35-hour working week and daughter of former European Commission President Jacques Delors.
She pledged allegiance as she conceded defeat.
“I will invest all my strength and energy to ensure that he is the president of France seven months from now,” Aubry said. The two later hugged, keen to show after the sparring of the last few days that the Socialists were now united in their quest for power.
The Socialist Party had organised a two-round contest where anyone who paid a euro and declared allegiance to left-wing values could vote.
More than 2.6 million people voted in the first-round last Sunday, when anti-globalisation hard-liner Arnaud Montebourg scored a surprise 17 percent.
Hollande, who promised in the final days of campaigning to crack down on banks and financial market excess, consolidated his position by securing the support of the four contenders knocked out in round one, including Montebourg.
Aubry is considered a more old-school Socialist but much of the difference is in style rather than fundamental policy.
Among the four eliminated candidates who backed Hollande in the runoff and joined him during his victory address on Sunday night was Segolene Royal, Hollande’s former companion and mother of his four children.
Primary finalists Hollande and Aubry shared the main tenets of a Socialist Party manifesto that promises to scrap 50 billion euros of tax breaks that mostly went to the wealthy under Sarkozy, using half of this money to fund state jobs and promote growth, with the rest to cut the deficit.
Opinion polls show Sarkozy heavily trailing Hollande in a presidential election which ends in a runoff on May 6, followed weeks later by a parliamentary election. Sarkozy, who won power in 2007 after 12 years of fellow conservative Jacques Chirac, has yet to declare a re-election bid.
“It’s been a long time, far too long,” said Hollande.
His companion, journalist Valerie Trierweiler, went a step further in a tweeted repeat of the words Mitterrand pronounced when he learned he had become the first left-wing president of France’s Fifth Republic in May 1981: “Quelle histoire. Quelle histoire.”
This story corrects Mitterrand's words in the final paragraph