* Key Socialists defect to centrist candidate
* Divisions call into question Socialist Party's survival
By Brian Love
PARIS, March 30 More than one in two French
voters believe struggling Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon
should drop out of the presidential race in favour of a rival
left-winger who has overtaken him in surveys of voting
intentions, a poll showed on Thursday.
The Harris Interactive poll was conducted after Wednesday's
announcement by former prime minister Manuel Valls that he would
join a growing number of fellow Socialists who refuse to vote
for Hamon, their own party's official candidate.
The disarray on the left has called into question the
survival of the Socialist Party and cleared a path for
independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine
Le Pen to emerge as favourites to win the presidency.
Hamon's problems partly reflect the depth of public
disenchantment with the Socialists after five years of rule by
Socialist President Francois Hollande.
Hamon, livid at Valls' decision to join other key Socialists
defecting to Macron, brushed off talk of an early election race
exit, saying in an interview on public service radio channel
franceinfo: "Of course I will stay through to the finish."
Two left-wingers, one from the Socialist Party and one not,
are fourth and fifth in the polls less than a month before the
first round of the election on April 23. Only the two top
candidates go through to the May 7 runoff.
Skirmishing in the Socialist Party, the largest party on the
Left, risks widening age-old divisions between moderates like
Valls and hardline left-wingers like Hamon to breaking point
under election pressures.
The Harris Interactive poll found that 53 percent of voters
felt Hamon should pull out of the race in favour of Jean-Luc
Melenchon, firebrand candidate of the Left Party, or what the
French call "the Left of the Left"
Melenchon has overtaken Hamon in a number of polls in the
last two weeks but the split of the left-wing vote means neither
is likely to make it past the first round.
The favourite, Macron, is tipped in all polls to easily beat
Le Pen in the May 7 runoff.
Erstwhile frontrunner Francois Fillon is in third place and
faces elimination too.
Hamon has for weeks been urging Melenchon to unite with the
Socialists behind him as a single candidate. But Melenchon again
ruled that out overnight, telling supporters at a rally in the
northern port of Le Havre: "I will negotiate with nobody."
If there were one rather than two left-wing candidates, that
contender would have a chance on paper of qualifying for the May
7 runoff if he managed to combine some 25 percent of votes now
split between the two.
(Reporting by Brian Love; Editing by Adrian Croft)