PARIS (AP) — France's Socialists and sympathizers on Sunday cast ballots for their nominee for next year's presidential election — an expected showdown with embattled conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The main opposition party is holding a primary runoff to choose its standard-bearer as many French people worry about high state debt, cuts to spending on education, anemic economic growth and lingering unemployment.
The contest pits party boss Martine Aubry against her predecessor, Francois Hollande. Aubry is best known as the author of France's fabled 35-hour workweek law passed in the late 1990s; Hollande is seen as a party moderate who favors greater integration with Europe.
After polls closed, party official Harlem Desir said reports from polling sites suggested that more than 2.7 million people had cast ballots — exceeding his hopes for turnout. In the first round last Sunday, more than 2.6 million voters reduced a six-person field to the two finalists.
Final results were expected later in the evening.
The U.S.-styled primary, the first of its kind in France, has been designed in part to help Socialists overcome years of dissension in their ranks. It is open to voters beyond those in the party, though some conditions apply.
Early this year, most polls showed that the Socialists' best hope for toppling Sarkozy was Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who led the International Monetary Fund until he was jailed in May in the United States on charges he tried to rape a New York hotel maid. Prosecutors later dropped the case, but Strauss-Kahn's reputation and presidential ambitions came crashing down.
Hollande, the top vote-getter in the first round, has received expressions of support from all four candidates who lost out last Sunday — a tacit sign that a Socialist victory in the presidential election is their highest priority.
Recent polls suggest Aubry or Hollande could beat Sarkozy in the presidential election next spring. The incumbent's favorability ratings have hovered near the 30-percent level for months, but he is a strong campaigner and senses a rightward-majority tilt in the French electorate.
Starting with Charles de Gaulle in 1958, France has had a string of conservative presidents over the past half-century, but only one Socialist: Francois Mitterrand.
Sarkozy, who was elected to a five-year term in 2007, has not announced whether he will run again, but most political observers expect that he will.
Hollande, 57, voted in the central Correze region, whose regional government he heads and which he represents in the National Assembly — parliament's lower house. Aubry, 61, cast her ballot in the northern city of Lille, where she is mayor.
Both Aubry and Hollande say trimming state debt is a priority, but have kept to Socialist party dogma on issues such as shielding citizens from the whims of the financial markets and raising taxes on the rich.
The party's nominee will face questions about how to keep France competitive at a time when sluggish growth has reined in state spending and emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil keep booming.
Hollande — the former partner of the Socialists' last presidential nominee, Segolene Royal — is little-known outside of France and has provided no dramatic proposals for saving the euro, shrinking debts, solving tensions with immigrants or other French woes.
Aubry has repeated her hopes for "a strong left" to face Sarkozy — seen by many as a jab at Hollande — and insisted she would unite ideological allies such as Green Party supporters for the presidential race finale.
In an interview published Saturday in Le Parisien newspaper, Aubry said the phrase "soft with the weak, and hard on the powerful" was one that fits her well.
In Paris' touristic and bohemian Montmartre neighborhood, voters streamed steadily into one polling station at an elementary school near the Sacre Coeur basilica. Several said their priority was getting Sarkozy out, but personality and gender also counted.
"It'd be great to have a woman president," said Michelle Joly, 44, an unemployed former human resources director, who voted for Aubry. "The programs of Aubry and Hollande are a bit 'six of one, half a dozen of the other.' And in fact. I'd probably have more negative things to say about Aubry, but I still voted for her."
Joly's husband, Jean Audouard, however, voted for Hollande.
"I like his ability to unite, his humor, and feel he's less left-leaning than Martine Aubry: I'm center-left," said the 50-year-old school director, while agreeing that the incumbent president needs to go.
"I think Sarkozy isn't suited to France today — he's not a unifier at a time when we need cohesion," he added. "I think Francois Hollande is good. He is a bit soft but he's really nice, and quite funny — and that counts."