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French politician and former Prime Minister Manuel Valls unveils his election platform to the media ahead of the left's presidential primaries in Paris, France, January 3, 2017. REUTERS/Charles Platiau(reuters_tickers)
By Andrew Callus
PARIS (Reuters) - Former prime minister Manuel Valls is favourite to represent the Socialists in the French presidential election, an opinion poll showed on Thursday, an outcome surveys show would offer the best chance of victory for the beleaguered party and its allies.
Valls is seen coming top in the Jan 22 first round vote of the primaries of the French left with 43 percent, ahead of second placed Arnaud Montebourg on 25 percent, and third-placed Benoit Hamon on 22 percent, the poll by Harris Interactive for France Televisions showed.
He would go on to win the official left-wing ticket by beating either of these two opponents in a run-off on Jan 29, with between 55 and 57 percent of the vote, according to the poll - a similar outcome to others conducted in December.
If Valls, prime minister until a month ago, does emerge the as Socialist candidate it will fall to him to try to rally the Left and turn the tide against what seems likely to end in a showdown between centre-right and far-right candidates.
But surveys about primaries have proved deceptive in the past.
Polls were predicting a completely different outcome from the actual result in the months leading up to the conservative primaries last November, making Alain Juppe the favourite over fellow former prime minister Francois Fillon.
In the space of two weeks, Fillon came from third place in the polls to emerge as favourite, and went on to win the ticket for The Republicans party by a big margin.
Polls in general consistently see a likely second round head-to-head between Fillon and National Front leader Marine Le Pen, with the 62-year-old Fillon winning by a comfortable margin.
Regardless of which candidate they end up with, the Socialists, whose prospects of retaining the presidency have suffered from President Francois Hollande's deeply unpopular rule, were putting a brave face on their chances on Thursday.
"We are the last to get organised for the presidentials. We will be the key to it," party leader Jean-Christophe Cambadelis said on Europe 1 radio.
Opinion polls of voting intentions for the presidential election itself give Valls or any candidate from the ruling party very little chance of winning.
Hollande's dismal record on tackling joblessness remains at the front of voters minds, and with two heavyweight rivals hemming him in on the left and the right, the race is looking like an uphill struggle for the candidate who represents his legacy.
Polls have consistently put Valls in a distant fifth place and eliminated in the April 23 first round of the election.
Nevertheless, they say the 54-year-old, who is from the right of his party and quit as prime minister to focus on a presidential campaign, represents the Socialists' best bet.
On the campaign trail, Valls has shifted to the left in some policy areas but still has centrist credentials.
"Valls has the merit of mobilising centre-left voters, which Montebourg and Hamon can't," Claude Dargent, a researcher at Sciences Po university in Paris told Reuters.
In a December Ifop Fiducial poll, a scenario where Valls wins the primaries put him on a 10 percent vote in the election proper. That compared with just 6 percent under a scenario involving ex-economy minister Montebourg, and just 4 percent for Hamon, a former education minister.
In front of Valls in the main election polls, aside from Fillon and Le Pen, are two people who have to some degree stolen the Socialist party's clothes.
One is the centrist Emmanuel Macron, an unelected 39-year-old former investment banker who quit as economy minister in November, turning his back on the governing Socialists who brought him to power to launch his own political movement called 'En Marche', which translates as 'Forward', or 'Onwards'.
The other is veteran leftwinger Jean-Luc Melenchon. He quit the Socialist party in 2008 to create his own Parti de Gauche (Party of the Left) and has also bypassed the official left wing primaries.
"In these conditions, with no plan and no electoral advantage, what is a Socialist party candidate for?" asked Melenchon in an interview with Le Monde newspaper.
Thursday's Harris Interactive poll was conducted online between Jan 2 and Jan 4 among 6,245 people of voting age, of whom 478 registered voters said they would definitely vote in the primary.
(Reporting by Andrew Callus; additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry; Editing by Michel Rose and Richard Balmforth)