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By Brian Love and Jean-Baptiste Vey
PARIS (Reuters) - Former prime minister Manuel Valls promised to avoid draconian public spending cuts in a pitch for traditional leftwing voters as he laid out his bid on Tuesday to become the ruling Socialist Party's candidate in France's presidential election.
Valls, who resigned last month as head of the government to free his hands to run for the Socialist nomination, also proposed an overhaul of the welfare system that would provide substantial handouts to many jobless people without requiring them to prove they are actively seeking work.
Valls, 54, told voters they faced a "vast purge" in public services and employment if the presidential election favorite, conservative Francois Fillon, wins power in May.
While pollsters say Valls is likely to secure the Socialist ticket in a primary vote this month, the left is in disarray and any Socialist candidate will face a struggle to make it beyond the first round of the two-stage ballot in April and May.
Pollsters see Fillon and far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen meeting in a head-to-head second round with the 62-year-old Fillon emerging the victor.
The National Front has won increasing support among traditional socialist voters with its protectionist economic policies, and many feel betrayed by Valls who spearheaded pro-business reforms during Francois Hollande's presidency.
On Tuesday, Valls sought to lure back such voters while casting Fillon as a politician who would sow deep divisions.
"The right's program will punish the French people. It is an unbeatable recipe of division worse than this country has ever seen in recent decades," he told a new conference.
Fillon, for his part, defended his program of slashing public spending and cutting half a million public sector jobs - policies which he says are needed give corporate France a shot in the arm and boost economic growth.
"I think 500,000 (jobs) is an achievable figure, particularly if we negotiate an increase in working hours," he told TF1 television, referring to plans to scrap the 35-hour working week.
He rejected repeated charges that his proposals for welfare and public health service reform were brutal. "I am a Gaullist and I am a Christian: that means I would never take a decision that is contrary to the respect for human dignity and the human being ...," he said.
Valls said he would continue to hire 1,000 more police per year to bolster security in a country under threat of further deadly attacks by Islamist militants. The defense budget would be increased too, he said.
He also proposes that adults be given the right to a monthly welfare handout at a time of 10 percent unemployment.
He has spoken in the past of a figure of 850 euros ($887) a month, saying such handouts would be means-tested and necessary for all to be able to get a good start in life. One of his rivals in the Socialist primary is proposing a more far-reaching version. Benoit Hamon, a former education minister, wants all French citizens to be given such a payment.
Valls launched his campaign after the unpopular Hollande announced he would not run for a second term, becoming the first president in France's Fifth Republic not to seek re-election. Some polls have shown his support in low single digits.
If Valls wins the party ticket, he will not only have to tackle the threat from Le Pen, but also deal with his former economy minister, ex investment banker Emmanuel Macron who is running as an independent, and Jean-Luc Melenchon on the far left who is performing well in polls.
(Additional reporting by Sophie Louet; Writing by Brian Love; editing by Richard Balmforth and Richard Lough)