Plodding provincial who stands on brink of the presidency

Published in The Daily Mail (May 4th, 20120)

He cut an unlikely figure as he stood in a corridor of the Bercy Omnisports Arena in Paris last Sunday, preparing to follow in the footsteps of megastars such as Madonna and Kylie Minogue in front of 22,000 chanting fans.

Indeed, with his smart grey suit, spectacles and earnest features, he might have passed as a bank manager. But this was Francois Hollande, 57, the man who has spent three decades waiting in the wings for his moment in the spotlight.

Polls predict this plodding, provincial politician — who has never held ministerial office, has few discernible beliefs and is renowned for his caution — will this weekend become president of France at a time of economic and political peril for Europe.

But if he appears dull on paper, there is a racy back story to Monsieur Hollande. It involves the mother of his four children, the politician Segolene Royal, with whom he lived for 30 years but from whom he separated acrimoniously six years ago, when it emerged that he was having an affair with a journalist named Valerie Trierweiler.

It was Royal who ran for President as the Socialist candidate at the last general election. Now, it is her former partner Hollande who is hoping to lead France, with his new lover — nicknamed The Rottweiler — at his side as First Lady. But it is not his intriguing love life that has been winning over voters in recent months — rather his resolutely Left-wing rhetoric.

Before stepping on stage to speak to his adoring Socialist Party faithful, waiting since the days when Ronald Reagan was in the White House to win back the presidency, M. Hollande offered a few words in English to the Daily Mail.

‘We will win, we will win,’ he said, grinning broadly, before going on to deliver his campaign speech in his usual stilted style, declaring his intention to hammer the rich and protect France from the perfidies of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ capitalism.

(This from a man whose official salaries and allowances provide him with a package of nearly £200,000 a year, funding his £1.5 million Paris flat and Cote d’Azur holiday home — although he has said that he will slash the presidential salary if elected.)

So who precisely is Francois Hollande, presenting himself as Monsieur Normal in contrast with the firecracker presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, whose supercharged style, supermodel spouse and super-rich friends so alienated his nation?

Both friends and foes say he is a warm character with a ready smile. But the friendly face hides a fierce determination that has seen him slim down, mould his image and taken him to the brink of power. ‘His critics commit the same mistake all the time — they underestimate him,’ says Serge Raffy, his biographer.

Hollande makes much of his roots in Rouen, the dull Normandy city that reflects his desired provincial image as the hard-working son of a doctor father and social worker mother. In reality, the family lived in the upmarket Bois-Guillaume ‘heights’ of Rouen — until forced to move as a result of his father Georges’s extreme Right-wing politics.

Georges was exposed as a close supporter of a former Vichy official who stood for president in a campaign managed by Jean-Marie Le Pen, later infamous as the Holocaust-denying founder of the Front National.

The ripples from this revelation led Georges to sell the family home and his clinic in 1968, when his son was 14. He retrained as an estate agent and moved to Neuilly-sur-Seine, the Parisian suburb that is Sarkozy’s fiefdom. The move was so rapid his father binned his young son’s childhood possessions, including a cherished collection of toy cars.

Such a background left its mark. His biographer Raffy traces Hollande’s dislike of confrontation, his desire to compromise and his self-deflecting humour back to a childhood need to avoid his father’s anger and the brutal corporal punishment meted out at his strict school. ‘Contrary to what his detractors believe, the man is neither cunning nor cynical,’ wrote Raffy. ‘He is simply in a posture of avoidance.’

He was, however, very close to his mother, Nicole, who stood as a Socialist candidate in Cannes in 2008. She died the following year, and Hollande has told friends he will dedicate his victory to her if he wins.

After moving to Paris, the preppy Neuilly-sur-Seine Lycee propelled the hard-working teenager into the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), which churns out the elite cliques dominating French politics, business and society.

In 1974, he spent the summer in the U.S. after winning a business school grant, driving from New York to San Francisco as Richard Nixon’s presidency crumbled amid the Watergate scandal.

He studied the invention of fast food, concentrating on McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken, those symbols of globalisation — and concluded they would invade France, too. ‘I could have made a fortune in cheeseburgers,’ he once told the New York Times. ‘But I finally chose politics.’

It was while he was at the ENA that Hollande fell for Ségolène Royal, a young radical. They met at a student party and remained together for 30 years. After they both became advisers to the Socialist President Francois Mitterrand in the early Eighties, Hollande became an MP in south-central France and rose to become head of the region.

In 1995, Hollande was appointed Socialist Party spokesman and, two years later, elected head of the party, a position he held for 11 years.

Grappling with the inflated egos and vicious factionalism of so-called comrades, he was viewed as someone who ducked difficult decisions and led from behind. ‘He is Mr Conciliator, Mr Compromise, Mr Consensus,’ said one old friend. With his pudgy features and portly frame, he was mocked by television satirists as ‘Flanby’ (a brand of caramel pudding) and Marshmallow Man.

Then came the blow of the 2007 presidential election. Despite his position as party chief, he failed to win the nomination and had to suffer the ignominy of his long-time partner Ségolène Royal seizing the crown in his place, only to lose against Sarkozy.

Months later, Royal announced their separation; they had actually split the year before, since Hollande was having an affair with Trierweiler, a journalist on the magazine Paris Match.

The twice-divorced Trierweiler once slapped a colleague who said something she deemed sexist. When her own magazine put her on its cover under the headline ‘Francois Hollande’s charming asset’, she tweeted: ‘Bravo Paris Match for its sexism . . . my thoughts go out to all angry women.’

Royal and Hollande are no longer on good terms — unsurprisingly, since he calls his new partner ‘the love of his life’ in interviews. ‘Can anyone recall anything Francois Hollande has done in 30 years?’ Royal asked bitterly at one point, though she has since grudgingly backed him.

With the help of The Rottweiler, this campaign saw the emergence of a new Hollande. He lost weight, sharpened his suits and ditched his old-fashioned horn-rimmed glasses. He started to mimic the mannerisms, the talk, even the walk of his hero Mitterrand.

Last year the eternal backroom boy was almost a joke, with just three per cent support in the polls. ‘Can you imagine Francois Hollande as president of the republic?’ said Laurent Fabius, a former Socialist prime minister. ‘You must be joking.’

Then came the downfall of the party favourite, the sexually incontinent Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and Hollande seized the moment he had been preparing for all his life, seeing off five rivals, including Royal.

The defining day came in January, in his first big rally, when he declared his desire to ‘reinvent the French dream’ to 15,000 ecstatic Socialists. His forceful oratory and fierce attack on capitalism took even his biggest fans by surprise. ‘My real adversary has no name, no face, no party,’ he thundered. ‘It will never be elected, yet it governs — the adversary is the world of finance.’

The racy rhetoric was backed by an old-fashioned Socialist programme of higher public spending and hefty taxes on businesses and the rich.

Yet Hollande’s supporters say he is a moderate dressing up a mildly Left-leaning programme to win an election in a country that has lost its AAA-credit rating, is riven with unemployment, dislikes capitalism and is disenchanted with European-driven austerity.

‘He has no burgeoning sense of mission,’ says a senior British Labour figure who has met him. ‘You don’t really know what he believes in. Indeed, I don’t think he knows what he believes in.’

This weekend, it seems likely Hollande will win the French presidency almost by default. ‘People want a quieter France after Sarkozy,’ says political commentator Frederic Martel. The big question is whether this affable political operator, with his giggles and glasses, his joviality and jokes, is the right person to tackle the calamitous crisis confronting his country.

He may surprise everyone. But more likely, he’s in for a rude awakening from his rose-tinted political fantasies once they are tested by the brutal realities of power. And it is not just France that may pay the price of his naivety, but the whole of Europe.

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