PARIS Former Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg was seen as marginally winning the first French left-wing primary television debate on Thursday, raising the prospect of a tight race to select the Left's candidate for the 2017 presidential election.
The winner of the primary at this stage has little prospect of topping the April-May presidential vote with all the leading candidates - conservative Francois Fillon, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen and independent former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron - all well ahead.
However, polls show that the result of the primaries is likely to impact Macron's chances, with Macron possibly reaching the presidential runoff depending on which candidate the Left picks for the party ticket.
The flash survey by Elabe pollsters after Thursday's debate found that 29 percent of people considered Montebourg most convincing, with former Prime Minister Manuel Valls at 26 percent and former Education Minister Benoit Hamon third at 20 percent.
But highlighting how close the Jan. 22 and Jan. 29 primary votes may be, Valls came out on top with 28 percent, followed by Hamon at 27 percent and Montebourg at 23 percent among left-wing voters.
Polling firm Elabe, commissioned by news network BFM TV, conducted the poll as an online survey of 1,117 voters.
Firebrand socialist Montebourg, who wants to levy a supertax on banks to raise 5 billion euros ($5.2 billion), appeared at ease in a dour, but courteous 2-1/2-hour debate.
"We can win in four months, but our enemy is defeatism. Nothing is set in stone. Who other than the Left will stop the indecent hunting down of civil servants by the Right?" Montebourg said, referring to Fillon's plans to slash civil service jobs.
Valls, who until this week had been the favourite to win the ticket and represents the Socialists' best bet in the election, played on his experience and tough security stance. He defended President Francois Hollande's five years saying he was "proud" of what had been achieved.
While other candidates expressed their disappointment on the period rarely did they challenge Valls despite clear differences on economic policies such as Hamon's proposals on a implementing a universal income plan.
"I have no enemies on this stage," Valls said, placing himself as the strongest candidate to unite the Left.
"We are talking about electing the president of the world's fifth-largest power ... in a world of Trump, Putin and Tayyip Erdogan," he said, referring to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Turkish president. "I want to be president because I embody a strong Republic and a fair France."
Two more televised debates will follow before the first round of the primaries, scheduled for Jan. 22.
Anyone willing to pay 1 euro and sign a declaration that they share the values of the Left can take part in the vote.
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Peter Cooney and Leslie Adler)