PARIS — A moderate French leftist once dismissed as soft as a strawberry dominated nationwide primary voting Sunday, and emerged the top likely challenger to the divisive and impulsive Nicolas Sarkozy for the nation's presidency.
Pollsters say Francois Hollande, a longtime Socialist leader who urged his party to embrace European integration, could easily dislodge the little-loved Sarkozy as president. Sunday's unusual Socialist Party primary produced the first electoral proof of Hollande's popularity.
But Hollande faces a tough runoff next week against the author of France's 35-hour workweek, party stalwart Martine Aubry, as both seek to solve voters' economic worries and prove their leftist mettle while maintaining party unity.
Hollande is seen by many as a welcome contrast to the conservative Sarkozy, though is little known outside France and has produced no dramatic proposals for saving the euro, shrinking debts, solving tensions with immigrants or the other woes that ail the world's fifth-largest economy.
The unexpectedly strong third-place showing by a hard-left candidate who has championed against globalization, Arnaud Montebourg, may weigh on party strategy and boost Aubry's chances. Montebourg is emerging as the kingmaker, or queenmaker, in the decisive second round Oct. 16.
The primary process itself – a first for France – is offering a boost for the Socialists, who haven't won a presidential election since 1988 and have suffered for years from divisions over how to steer a leftist course through the increasingly interconnected global economy.
Both Hollande and Aubry sought to distance themselves from a present that many French voters see as bleak.
"I am the candidate of change," Hollande said after the initial primary results came in. "Francois, President!" his supporters bellowed.
"I will bring this deep change" that voters want, Aubry told her backers.
One change she proposes would be returning to retirement at 60, reversing a hard-fought Sarkozy reform aimed at cutting pension costs.
She acknowledged that France needs to get its soaring debts under control, but added, "I refuse to be in a race for austerity with the right."
Sarkozy hasn't said it outright but is widely expected to seek a second term in April-May elections.
The man considered a shoo-in for the Socialist nomination earlier this year, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was notably absent from the ballot. The former International Monetary Fund chief saw his presidential ambitions shrivel after a New York hotel maid accused him in May of trying to rape her. Prosecutors later dropped the case, but he faces continued legal troubles.
The Socialist Party said on its website that Hollande had 39 percent of the vote and Aubry 31 percent, based on 1.9 million ballots counted. Those ballots must still be double-checked and validated before the result is definitive.
The party estimates that more than 2 million voters took part in Sunday's voting.
The bespectacled Hollande, 57, has years of experience as a lawmaker and his center-left views are palatable to a broad swath of French voters.
A leftist rival once said Hollande was as inoffensive as a strawberry, and the political satire TV show "Les Guignols" portrayed him as a jiggly custard. He has worked hard to overcome that image and prove he can be presidential, paring kilograms off his portly figure and speaking forcefully in recent TV debates.
Aubry, 61, became the first woman to run the Socialist Party when she succeeded Hollande. The daughter of statesman Jacques Delors, who helped lay the groundwork for the shared euro currency, Aubry helped craft the controversial 35-hour workweek law as labor minister a decade ago in hopes that would create more jobs.
The biggest loser Sunday was Segolene Royal, the Socialists' candidate in the last presidential campaign.
In an unusual moment of raw emotion, Royal choked up and then cried on camera as Sunday's results rolled in, showing her with 7 percent of the vote. She's the mother of Hollande's four children, and their high-profile relationship unraveled during her 2007 campaign.
Sylvie Corbet and Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this report.