French conservatives pick woman for Paris mayor race

PARIS (REUTERS) - The spokesman for Nicolas Sarkozy's re-election campaign last year won a primary election on Monday to become the conservative UMP party's candidate for the 2014 Paris mayoral race.

Ms Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, 40, an up-and-coming opposition figure who was also Sarkozy's environment minister, beat three little-known candidates to win the UMP candidacy with 58 per cent of the electronic vote.

Her win will pit her against another woman, Socialist Anne Hidalgo, in the race for one of the most high-profile elected positions in France and one that is a traditional springboard for the presidency. Paris has never before had a female mayor.

Holding onto the mayorship for the ruling Socialist Party will be a challenge for President Francois Hollande, whose approval ratings have slumped to as low as 24 per cent as voters blame him for record unemployment and stalled economic growth.

The race will also be a test for the UMP which tore itself in two last year trying to decide who should succeed Mr Sarkozy. It has been further split this year over how to far to support protests against Mr Hollande's law legalising gay marriage.

Ms Kosciusko-Morizet, often called by her initials NKM, is known for her hip and casual style of dressing but had to fight off an upper-class image during Mr Sarkozy's campaign when she was unable to give the price of a metro ticket during a radio show.

A lawmaker from the Essonne region south of Paris who sides with the more moderate wing of the fractured UMP, polls place her neck-and-neck with Ms Hidalgo, who has already begun campaigning in the city of some 2.2 million residents.

Ms Hidalgo is a protege of current Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, who has held the sought-after seat for the last 12 years.