Mme. President? Socialists are likely to pick Ségolène.

If she wins the nomination Thursday, she will become first woman in France to be a major party presidential candidate.

In party offices around the country Thursday, French Socialists will choose their candidate for the 2007 presidential race against tough-talking, capitalist-leaning Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the probable conservative nominee.

Heading into the final hours before the vote, Ségolène Royal – a former environment minister who has run as a Socialist maverick – appeared to be holding her early lead in opinion polls of the country's 219,000 card-carrying party members. If she manages to beat her two rivals, she would become the first woman in France to be a major party presidential candidate.

The Socialists, who suffered a stinging defeat in presidential elections four years ago, have tried in six weeks of primary debates to present an alternative to President Jacques Chirac, who is finishing his tenth year in office.

In 2006, the Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin lost out in the first round of voting to the far-right nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen, who went on to face – and lose to – Mr. Chirac in the second round.

But with many French voters saying they are concerned about unemployment, ethnic tensions in immigrant ghettos, and security, Ms. Royal has taken a number of positions more closely associated with Mr. Sarkozyand others from the right wing.

She has endorsed the idea of sending repeat juvenile offenders to mandatory military-style reform school and denying government aid to their parents. Like her two Socialist rivals, she has called for massive state investment into scientific research to give France an edge in an increasingly globalized world economy, and would penalize companies that outsourced French jobs.

Sarkozy, whose party will not choose its candidate until January, has called for a "break" with France's tradition of state control of the market and has expressed admiration for capitalism – an unthinkable position for the country's left wing.

Royal's opponents in the primary vote are former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, who describes himself as a classic Socialist who favors increased wages for workers, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who calls himself a pro-Europe Social Democrat.

Mr. Strauss-Kahn, in the heated final days of the Socialist race, sharply criticized Royal, saying her proposals for France have been vague and her positions too focused on law and order.

"To beat Nicolas Sarkozy we need to set out a course which is different from the one he is proposing," he said during a campaign tour this week. "If there is no forward-looking dynamic, we will lose."

If one of the three candidates does not gain 50 percent or more of the vote, the primary contest will go to a second round next week.

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