We all know Sarko, but who's the other guy?


French voters used to regard François Hollande as a jovial policy wonk with woolly views and an inability to say no. So in
the run-up to tomorrow’s first round of the presidential election, the candidate has been cultivating a harder edge

FRANÇOIS HOLLANDE’S first step in the race for the French presidency went largely unnoticed. In the early summer of 2009 he invited allies in the Socialist Party to the Breton port town of Lorient to mark the creation of his club de réflexion, a sort of informal think tank that French politicians use to build their party power base.

Out of 500 invitees, 400 turned up. The media showed even less interest; Hollande, a former general secretary of the opposition party who had twice been foiled in his hope of a tilt at the presidency, was considered by then a peripheral figure in French politics. “When I told a journalist I was supporting Hollande he laughed in my face,” recalls the historian Benjamin Stora, who was present in Lorient.

Over the following two years Hollande set about overhauling his image and building his support in the party. Seen by many as a jovial wonk with woolly views, an aversion to conflict and an inability to say no – he was once nicknamed “Flamby” by colleagues, after a brand of soft caramel pudding – Hollande began cultivating a graver tone, a more aloof persona.

He shed weight. Out went the rumpled suits and the professorial glasses. He hit the road, crossing the country to visit party branches where he had built good contacts during his stint as leader. But even by this time last year, as he prepared his run for the party’s presidential primary, Hollande’s chances looked slim. That was because the favourite for the nomination, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, had put himself in an apparently unassailable position. Opinion polls showed Strauss-Kahn, his domestic standing enhanced by a term as managing director of the IMF, comfortably defeating President Nicolas Sarkozy, and his plan to return from Washington DC to join the fray was an open secret.

Then came DSK’s sudden downfall. With his arrest in New York, his chances of contesting the primary evaporated. Several senior figures, notably the party leader, Martine Aubry, had decided not to stand against Strauss-Kahn, and now found themselves unprepared and running out of time. The chief beneficiary was Hollande. A slick campaign duly won him the primary; party elders quickly fell in behind him. And his momentum has held: with French voters going to the polls tomorrow in the first round of the presidential election, opinion polls say Hollande is the favourite to win. “Everything in my life has prepared me for this moment. It has been a long road,” Hollande writes in his recent memoir.

Born into a middle-class Catholic family in Rouen, in Normandy, Hollande had a strained relationship with his father, whose far-right views caused friction with a son whose opinions were largely formed by his mother, a social worker who voted for the socialist François Mitterrand.

Hollande took the classic route through France’s elite education system: after a law degree and a spell at the prestigious business school HEC, he studied at Sciences Po and eventually at ENA, the finishing school for generations of politicians and civil servants. One of his classmates at ENA was Ségolène Royal, with whom he would have four children before they separated, after 25 years together, in 2007 – the year Royal beat him to the Socialist Party’s nomination for the last presidential election. His current partner, at his side throughout the campaign, is a journalist, Valérie Trierweiler.

Hollande, now 57, has worked for the party for most of his adult life. After short spells at the auditor-general’s office and as a university teacher, at 27 he became an economic adviser to President Mitterrand. A seat in parliament followed, and in 1997, when the socialists returned to government, with Lionel Jospin as prime minister, Hollande became the party’s general secretary.

His 11 years at the helm were a fractious time for the organisation, the nadir coming with its split over the referendum on the European constitution in 2005. Hollande, who supported the treaty, ended up on the losing side, which ruined his chances of winning the presidential nomination he coveted in 2007; instead, Royal came out of nowhere to clinch it.

Pinning down Hollande’s views has always been difficult. There is no “Hollande current” in the Socialist Party, but he belongs firmly to its social-democratic wing and has a reputation for policy pragmatism. His manifesto is carefully balanced between the imperatives of shoring up the left wing and reassuring centrists, notably by pledging to bring the budget deficit under control. A disciple of Jacques Delors, he is a convinced pro-European who has supported every major treaty and likes the idea of an “inner core” of founder members taking the lead.

His pledge to seek renegotiation of the fiscal compact has annoyed Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, but nobody seriously doubts that they could work together. Hollande’s views on the euro crisis (he favoured eurobonds and deeper ECB involvement) were almost identical to Sarkozy’s opening positions, and he and Merkel are temperamentally more alike than she and Sarkozy.

Colleagues readily acknowledge Hollande’s intelligence and sense of humour, but after three decades in the fratricidal ranks of the Socialist Party the archives are filled with evidence of where they see his weaknesses.

“Can you tell me one thing he has achieved in 30 years in politics?” Royal asked of her former partner when they fought for the party nomination last autumn. Aubry, a possible prime minister if Hollande becomes president, said he represented the “limp left”. The former prime minister Laurent Fabius, who is now Hollande’s foreign-policy adviser, once called him “a wild strawberry”.

Yet Hollande has confounded critics by putting himself in pole position to become the first left-wing president of France in a quarter of a century. In an election that has largely been a referendum on the unpopular incumbent, Hollande has been best placed to take advantage because he is, in nearly every way, the anti-Sarkozy. Where the president is impetuous, mercurial and ostentatious, Hollande is methodical, calm and low key.

Sarkozy has struggled to brush off the “president of the rich” label, a fact the scooter-riding Hollande has tried to exploit, not least with his surprise proposal for a 75 per cent tax rate on incomes of more than €1 million, which left Sarkozy damned however he responded. “I like people, not money,” Hollande says. He would be a “normal president”, he repeats constantly.

In a campaign whose terms have been set by the public verdict on Sarkozy, the lack of any great passion for Hollande has so far been less damaging than it might have been. At his campaign rallies he sounds every bit the French career politician, speaking in bullet points and making little attempt to connect with the crowd, although on walkabouts he can be warm and charming. “He doesn’t have that arrogance. He has a sense of humour. He’s a nice man – he smiles, he is gracious,” said Annie Biesuz, a public nurse, as she left a Hollande rally in Lyons earlier this month. Even his eldest son, Thomas Hollande, admits that there is not the same excitement around his father’s campaign as there was for his mother’s five years ago.

But Hollande’s campaign has been disciplined, well organised and shrewdly run, and his affable, inoffensive style have made him a tricky opponent. “He takes every blow without reacting,” an exasperated senior figure from Sarkozy’s UMP party told Marie-Eve Malouines, Hollande’s biographer.

The socialists haven’t got their hands on the keys to the Élysée Palace yet. Far from it. If Hollande and Sarkozy qualify for the run-off, they face an intense head-to-head battle that the incumbent – a superior debater and orator – will relish. But if Hollande does pull it off, he’ll surely enjoy the symmetry in taking office almost three years to the day since he turned up in Lorient for those first tentative steps out of the wilderness.

C’est quoi, ça? All the information you need about France’s presidential election

How does the election work?French presidential elections are conducted by run-off voting, which ensures the winner has a majority. The first round, contested this year by 10 candidates, is tomorrow. If, as expected, no one receives a majority, the two highest-scoring candidates will take part in a run-off on May 6th.

Who might be in the run-off?In all 350 opinion polls so far, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande have occupied the first two places. The latest Ipsos survey put the two men neck and neck, on 27 per cent each, ahead of the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, on 15.5, the left-wing radical Jean-Luc Mélenchon, with 14.5, and the centrist François Bayrou, with 10 per cent. Sarkozy’s campaign launch in February and his handling of the killings in Toulouse gave him a boost, but his momentum has tapered off recently. All polls show Hollande winning a run-off against Sarkozy, with Ipsos putting his lead at 56 per cent to the incumbent’s 44 per cent.

Does it matter who comes first tomorrow?In theory it makes no difference – the slate is wiped clean for the second round – but in practice the outcome in the first round shapes the dynamic of the run-off. Many polls say Sarkozy will come first tomorrow, but he needs a substantial lead over Hollande to stay in the game.

What are the chances of an upset?The gap between the two frontrunners and the chasing pack is a solid 10 per cent, but there’s always potential for a surprise. There are fears that abstention could be high, and polls show a wide dispersal of the left-wing vote, two trends that recall the 2002 election, when Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front caused a sensation by qualifying for the second round. One of the open questions is how accurately pollsters are capturing the vote of Marine Le Pen (pictured). They miscalculated her father’s support. Have they got it right this time?

What else should we look out for?If Sarkozy and Hollande qualify tomorrow, those who voted for the three candidates below them will hold the keys to the presidency. The revelation of the campaign has been Mélenchon, a former Trotskyite whose rise has lifted the left-wing vote by attracting people who might otherwise have abstained or voted National Front. Eighty-three per cent of his voters say they will switch to Hollande in the second round, which would go a long way to pushing Hollande over the line. To remain in the hunt, Sarkozy would need to persuade National Front voters to switch to him. He would also need a big share of those voters who opt for the centrist François Bayrou, who can expect to be lavished with praise and inducements on Monday morning.