PARIS (AP) — France's Socialists hold the first round of voting Sunday to determine which of six candidates will take on unpopular President Nicolas Sarkozy in next year's presidential elections, a race under unusual scrutiny with the absence of one-time sure nominee Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
After a series of televised debates among the candidates, polls show former Socialist party leader Francois Hollande with a clear lead, with the party's current head Martine Aubry in second. Segolene Royal, the failed 2007 presidential candidate, is running a distant third.
Former International Monetary Fund chief Kahn had long been the Socialists' presumed presidential candidate, but allegations by a New York hotel maid last May that he sexually assaulted her upended those plans — although prosecutors later dropped the case.
In a first for France, primary voting is open to all registered voters, not just Socialist party members. Voters are required to sign a pledge that they share the values of the left, and to donate euro1 ($1.34) towards the cost of organizing the vote.
Sarkozy has not declared his intentions, but it is assumed he will seek a second mandate in the election scheduled for next April.
The number of people who cast ballots in Sunday's primary will be a critical indicator of the amount of support the Socialists might expect in the presidential race. The party took control of the Senate last month, a first, but the voting was indirect — by regional elected officials, not the public.
If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in Sunday's poll, a run-off will be held Oct. 16 between the top two finishers.
The winner will take on Sarkozy in elections next April.
Recent opinion surveys have showed Sarkozy's approval ratings at historic lows. Leftist voters are angry at his cost-cutting measures and say he is too cozy with corporate interests. Many conservatives are disappointed that he has not been bolder about loosening up the labor market and hasn't eased tensions between police and youth in suburban housing projects.
The other candidates competing in Sunday's poll are Jean-Michel Baylet, Manuel Valls and Arnaud Montebourg.