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François Hollande: from obscurity to presidential frontrunner

François Hollande will fight Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2012 presidential election. But does the centre-left Socialist Party candidate, who has never held a position in government, have what it takes?


French primary voters have chosen François Hollande to lead the opposition Socialist Party (PS) against conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy in next spring’s Presidential election.

With a convincing 56% win over opponent Martine Aubry in the country’s first US-style primary, the PS hopes that having a candidate with presumed universal appeal will end the party’s long losing streak in presidential polls.

Aubry was quick to congratulate the 57-year-old Hollande and to appeal for unity. “Change has got a name – it is Francois Hollande,” she said as she conceded defeat on Sunday. “The primaries have shown him to be the legitimate candidate in the fight against the right and the far right. Now is the time for us all to stand behind him.”

Hollande, and his party, need that unity. The French left has not had a successful presidential candidate since Francois Mitterrand in 1988, despite a growing dominance in regional politics.

And with Sarkozy languishing in the polls, Hollande appears to be in a strong position ahead of next year’s election.

But the “homme tranquille” (quiet man) of French politics, who has never held a government post or run a business, can be sure of one thing: Sarkozy, with his back to the wall, will put up a fight that will test Hollande and the PS to the limit.

An unlikely candidate

Until his candidature, Hollande was a low key politician who has since emerged from the sidelines to a position of enormous potential. Relatively unknown outside France, he has a reputation at home for a jovial bonhomie and a sharp self-deprecating wit.

The former PS General Secretary (a position not synonymous with presidential candidacy) has a history of being a problem solver, but one who has always been in the background.

Hollande was educated at the prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration – an essential precursor to a successful political career in France - where he met Segolene Royal, who would become the mother of their four children.

In many ways he was eclipsed by his glamorous partner, who held ministerial positions under Mitterrand and moved up the political ladder until 2007, when she was chosen to be the PS candidate running against Sarkozy.

Back in 2002, Hollande, a lawyer, university lecturer and member of parliament for the Correze region in central France, was elected General Secretary of the PS after party candidate Lionel Jospin was disastrously knocked out of the presidential race by the far right National Front leader Jean-Marie le Pen.

He was seen as a safe pair of hands to rebuild the party’s morale following the ignominy of defeat.

In 2007 he separated from Royal, who had lost the presidential election to Sarkozy, and the following year he resigned as head of the PS.

With ‘DSK’ out of the picture…

At the beginning of the 2011, all eyes were on then-IMF boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the hugely popular French Socialist who was tipped to win both the primaries and the 2012 election hands down.

But everything changed when Strauss-Kahn was arrested in New York in May 2011, on charges of attempted rape against a hotel maid.

Aubry, who was reported to have agreed not to run against Strauss-Kahn, came into the race, and Hollande, till then considered the outsider, was finally in the picture as a serious contender.

Hollande has promised to be a “normal” president should he win, playing directly to the undercurrent of resentment in France directed towards Sarkozy. Sarkozy is known as the “Bling Bling” president due to his taste for Rolex watches and his marriage to the supermodel Carla Bruni.

In the past few years, Hollande also underwent a radical image overhaul. Sharpening up his frumpy dress sense and losing a whopping ten kilos has surprised many and will make him a much more camera-friendly election prospect.

Courting the centre ground

Politically, he is a centre-left candidate – he was criticised by Aubry in the primaries campaign for being a “soft left” vacillator.

But Hollande, as the primaries hotted up, toughened his stance against banks and financial markets, and also promised to reverse some of the austerity measures imposed by the current administration.

Promising, for example, 60,000 new jobs in the state education system, he nevertheless wants to be seen as realistic about public debt.

In choosing Hollande, France’s socialists have picked a candidate who isn’t a spend-happy left-winger - but one who states he is realistic about the challenge of pulling the country out of the economic mire.

Exactly how Hollande will propose to change the country’s fortunes in the face of a debt crisis that is well beyond France’s borders remains to be seen.

In addressing the issue, Hollande will be appealing to the crucial centre-ground of the country’s electorate. These are the voters Sarkozy courted successfully in 2007, and voters he will fight tooth and nail to retain.

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