French Left picks presidential candidate as Socialist rebel faces ex-PM Valls

"I would like to congratulate Benoit Hamon".

The 49-year-old Hamon, a surprise victor in the primary's first round last weekend, was one of those party members who rebelled against what he saw as a drift to the right under Valls and President Francois Hollande, stepping down as education minister in 2014.

With 60% of the votes counted, the hard-left Mr Hamon was on 58%, compared to 41% for former prime minister Manuel Valls.

Polls also suggest that Hamon might not even make the second and final round of the vote against Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front Party, largely defined by xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric.

But Hamon and his Socialist supporters also face a challenge from former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, who served in the Socialist government but is not a party member and who is pushing for a more business-friendly government and lower taxation. "The left are rising and may win", Benoit Hamon said addressing the voters.

Pledges: To give 750 euros ($800) "universal income" gradually to all French adults; to tax robots; to legalize cannabis; to repeal labor measures forced through parliament by his rival, Manuel Valls; recognition of a Palestinian state.

But analysts saw Hamon's victory as something far more seismic: the likely demise of the French left, and specifically, the Socialist Party, as a force to be reckoned with in French and European politics.

Casting his ballot for Valls in a gymnasium two blocks from the presidential Elysée Palace, voter Jean-Pierre Abehassera said the ex-prime minister offered a stronger bulwark against militant Islam than Hamon. Bernard Biassette, 74, a retired bank worker, voted for Hamon only to eliminate Valls, whom he saw as a greater threat to his preferred presidential candidate - Macron.

About 7,500 polling stations opened this morning at 9 a.m. (08:00 GMT) and will close at 7 p.m. (18:00 GMT).

"I still think he is the best candidate for France, to help us get out of the crisis and reduce unemployment", said Laurence Benoist, who was among the 15,000 people Fillon said attended his rally.

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