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Leftwinger may win French Socialist ticket, but presidency beyond reach

By Brian Love

By Brian Love

PARIS (Reuters) - Radical left-winger Benoit Hamon looked well-placed on Monday to become the Socialist contender in France's presidential election after winning the first round of a candidate-selection contest, but the ultimate goal of becoming president seemed as remote as ever.

Voters will have a clear choice in the Jan. 29 runoff of the Socialist primary between the markedly more left-wing Hamon and former prime minister Manuel Valls, a moderate Socialist who came second in Sunday's opening round.

Hamon wants, among other things, to legalize cannabis and establish a basic state income level of 600 euros per month for all adults.

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Hamon's breakthrough, which quickly won the support of party grandees such as Arnaud Montebourg and Martine Aubry, marks a resurgence of a more traditional Left after five years of more pro-business leadership under President Francois Hollande.

But beyond the personal triumph for Hamon and the fallout for his party, analysts doubt any such victory would significantly improve dismal prospects facing any Socialist candidate in the presidential election, which takes place on April 23 and May 7.

It stands, ironically, to boost Emmanuel Macron, a centrist whom pollsters put in third place in the race for the Elysee behind right-winger Francois Fillon and far-right leader Marine Le Pen - the two candidates whom polls tip to make it to the May 7 presidential runoff.

By signaling a lurch to the left, a Hamon win in the Socialist primary will boost Macron's prospects of drawing votes from moderate left-wingers after Valls exits.

UNPOPULAR HOLLANDE

"From here on, there are three contenders who could make the second round of the presidential contest: Fillon, Le Pen and Macron," said Bruno Cavalier, chief economist at Oddo Securities and a long-time observer of the French political scene.

Opinion polls show no Socialist is likely to win the presidency after the unpopular rule of Hollande.

With Valls out of the picture, Macron, an independent who says he wants to transcend the traditional Left-Right divide, would be well placed to pick up much of the center ground and grab second place in the opening round of the presidential ballot on April 23. That would get him into the May 7 runoff.

Hamon, who was sacked from government by Hollande in 2014 for criticizing his economic policies, took more than 36 percent of votes versus 31 for Valls in the first round of the Socialist primary.

Buoying his prospects for next Sunday, the former education minister won the endorsement of Montebourg, another left-winger and primary candidate who came in third with 18 percent. Aubry, now mayor of Lille and another pillar of the Socialist party, also said she would back Hamon.

This year's primary, open to anyone of voting age, drew just 1.6 and 1.7 million of France's 44 million-plus voters.

Macron, 39, was an economy minister in Hollande's Socialist government but he has never been elected to office and remains a largely unknown factor on the political scene he wants to shake up.

He is a former investment banker who oversaw liberalization of Sunday shop opening and bus transport but has yet to produce an official presidential election program to be judged by.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Callus and Yann Le Guernigou; Editing by Richard Balmforth)