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PARIS (Reuters) - France's Left on Saturday launched a bid to re-energise supporters disenchanted by Francois Hollande's five years in power and find a candidate to unite the ranks ahead of a presidential election next year where it could face humiliation.
Hollande threw the Socialist nomination of a candidate for next spring's presidential election wide open last Thursday when he announced he would not seek a second term in the Elysee.
As leftist groups held a rally on Saturday intended to be the start of a fightback after months of disarray, all eyes were on Prime Minister Manuel Valls, widely tipped as favourite to become the Socialists' standard bearer despite having pro-business policies which have angered many in the party.
With Hollande in Abu Dhabi on an official visit, the 54-year-old Valls stayed away from the rally and, though he was dogged by journalists throughout the day, there was no formal announcement from his camp.
Media commentators expected he would declare himself soon as a candidate for the Socialist primaries in late January where his main rival for the party ticket is likely to be Arnaud Montebourg, a leftist firebrand and former economy minister under Hollande.
The meeting hall of the convention by the Belle Alliance Populaire, or Beautiful Popular Alliance, which brings together the Socialists and their allies, resounded to cries of: "Unite!" from the 3,000 or so leftwing faithful who turned out on Saturday.
But the withdrawal of the deeply unpopular Hollande from the presidential race has yet to change broad expectations that the 2017 election will come down to a run-off between the centre-right's candidate Francois Fillon and far-right leader Marine Le Pen next May.
Pollsters see the Socialists - whether they field Valls or another candidate - being eliminated in the first round in April.
A run-off between Fillon, a former prime minister with free-market policies who has set his sights on slashing public spending, and Le Pen, head of the anti-immigrant and anti-EU National Front, is a nightmare scenario for the Left.
Socialist Party leader Jean-Christophe Cambadelis on Saturday made an impassioned plea to the Left to close ranks behind a single candidate.
"Rise up you people of the Left! We have to fight the Right and push back the National Front!," Cambadelis declared.
He called on two candidates who say they intend to stand as independents - veteran left-winger Jean-Luc Melenchon and Emmanuel Macron, a former economy minister under Hollande, - to join in the Socialists' primaries on Jan. 22 and 29 in the interests of unity.
Opinion polls in the past week have consistently made Fillon, a 62-year-old racing car enthusiast, favourite to win the presidency next year with two-thirds of the vote against a third for Le Pen.
His name drew whistles of derision whenever it was evoked at the leftists' convention on Saturday. One Socialist deputy said his programme combined the policies "40 years on" of the late U.S. President Ronald Reagan and late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
In Abu Dhabi, Hollande took a swipe at Fillon's plans to get rid of 500,000 public sector jobs in five years. "When there are no civil servants, there is no State any longer. And when there is no State there is no France," Hollande said.
A flash opinion poll published within hours of Hollande withdrawing from the race on Thursday night showed that a majority of respondents wanted to see Valls win the Socialists' nomination.
This is despite a programme of pro-business reforms and a tough policy on law and order which has earned him many enemies within the Socialist party itself.
Additional reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey; Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Toby Chopra