On the 22nd of April and the 6th of May the French elect their president. Who will follow in the footsteps of Charles de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou, Valerie Giscard d’Estaing, François Mitterand, Jacques Chirac, and Nicolas Sarkozy?
If there is one person who hopes their time has come it is the Socialist’s François Hollande. Leading the polls, and at the head of the largest opposition party, he has the reputation of being a quiet man.
On the campaign trail the purely political side of Hollande has come out; knowing how to bide his time marked his years at the head of the party, and when his former partner Segolene Royale fought her disasterous 2007 presidential campaign for the Socialists.
Getting the party to swing behind him and back his candidacy is the most spectacular political comeback, but recapturing power for the left would be even sweeter.
The polls say Hollande has a good chance of becoming the seventh president of the fifth French republic. How did he get here? François Hollande has never even been a minister, so why is he the favourite? His tenacity and patience count for something; it seems destiny has looked after the rest.
Hollande comes from a well-to-do Normandy family. His father had links with the extreme right, and campaigned for a French Algeria, but little François wasted no time in declaring his political ambitions;
“He used to say something that always made us laugh, ‘When I’m bigger I’ll be president.’ We didn’t believe it, in fact we still don’t.” said his mother in 2003.
He proved to be a brilliant student, acing three of France’s most prestigous Grandes Ecoles, coming seventh in his year at the elite administrator’s hothouse the ENA in 1980. It is here he meets Segolene Royale, with whom he has four children and, allied, fights his earliest political battles.
She takes on several ministries, while François has to wait until Lionel Jospin hands him the party reins in 1997, when President Chirac names Jospin prime minister.
Some five years later catastophe strikes the Socialists; in the first round of 2002’s presidential elections Jospin is beaten into second place by a whisker by the extreme-right Front National. Jean- Marie Lepen goes on to a massive second-round defeat by Chirac. The entire French left is traumatised by the shock.
In 2005 the Socialists suffer another humiliation; they campaign for a ‘yes’ vote in a referendum on the EU constitution, which is rejected. The issue divides the party.
Hollande is again overshadowed in 2007, when Royale cashes in on her popularity to snatch the party candidacy in the presidential election. Hollande does not run, and their couple collapses. It is Hollande’s lowest point.
But last year the supposed Socialist candidate-in- waiting, and if the polls were to be believed, favourite to become president Dominique Strauss Kahn was caught with his pants down in New York, and his credentials were history.
Hollande stepped into the breach, beat off a challenge from Martine Aubry and others for the candidacy, and emerged triumphant at the end of 2011. Now his message is all about unity, and ending the Sarkozy era:
“I know the size of the task that awaits me. It’s heavy. It’s serious. I will have live up to the expectations of those French people who cannot stand any more of Nicolas Sarkozy’s policies,” he says.
In his manifesto Hollande promises a return to a balanced budget by 2017 and 20 billion euros of new public spending over the next five years, paid for notably by a slashing of 29 billions of tax breaks and a supertax rate for the rich.
Earn over a million euros a year and you will pay a 75% taxrate on the rest. The opposition thunders that is populist and counter-productive. Hollande brushes that aside with calm conviction;
“It’s patriotic to accept to pay extra taxes to get the nation back on its feet. That the richest in society make an effort seems to me to set the right example,” he insists.
Compared to the buzzing Sarkozy, to-ing and fro-ing from campaign flashpoints and photo opportunities, Hollande has often been criticised for his lack of charisma, his blandness, or branded as a lightweight. It is not how his party workers see him:
“He’s brave, inclusive, and human.”
“He’s very down to earth, approachable, and warm.”
“He’s honest, committed, and straightforward.”
“He’s someone who knows how to listen and doesn’t seek to divide. He can bring people together at a time when we have a hard task ahead and hard times in which to do it.”
“He looks composed, he’s clever, and inspires trust.”
“He’s a moderate who can compromise. He fits the part.”
So is Hollande “Mr Normal” as the English-language press has dubbed him, and is that enough to be President of the French? Normally the electorate likes to vote in “the best of the French” to the job; a brilliant intellectual or erudite speaker and writer, an inspirational figure, someone the French can feel proud of, and who will glitter on the international scene and keep France’s profile high. Hollande does not seem to fit that profile.
Up against him is Nicolas Sarkozy, every inch the showman and assertive in a way the French like, but who has modelled the French presidential style to suit his tastes, not his compatriots. Many find Sarkozy flashy and lacking in dignity, and some are suddenly finding something in the more modest Hollande demeanor they like.
His take on European politics also finds friendly ears:
“Does Europe want to reassure its financial markets or its citizens? I think we have to do everything to restore health to public finances, but also to restore citizens’ faith in the beautiful EU idea.
The debt is our enemy, because it threatens the solidarity between generations, weighing heavily on the young, handicapping them with our failures to to manage the public finances,” he says.
François Hollande says that, once elected, he will renegotiate the EU budgetary pact signed on March 2nd. It is a promise that is making waves, even sparking rumours of a “European anti-Hollande plot”.
“I’ll ask the French people at this election to hand me the responsibility of discussing, modifying, and renegotiating the treaty so we can have a Europe that is serious about stability and growth. I hear people asking ‘how are you going to get this out of your partners and the Germans when your predecessor couldn’t?’…Well, that’s why we are getting rid of him,” he says to laughter at a party rally.
The once gentle and avuncular Hollande has become quick on the draw and cutting in his criticisms. His sense of humour survives, if mostly in private, but overall he is a different man, oozing the confidence once so obviously lacking.
Determined and patient, Hollande awaits polling day with quiet confidence.
“Those people who get angry and agitated are often worried people. Me, I’m not worried,” he claims.