On a vast stage in a hangar north of Paris, in front of thousands of screaming fans, stood a man in a sober suit and sensible tie. This was France’s self-styled Mr Ordinary, who once appeared so jovial, placid and unthreatening that his own party called him The Marshmallow.
But now Francois Hollande — a rural MP who led the Socialist party for 11 years — was shaking his fists, drenched in sweat, perma-tanned and svelte after the most famous crash diet in French politics, delivering a string of rousing slogans to convince the nation that he could become France’s first Socialist president since François Mitterrand.
Hollande is consistently topping the polls three months before the French presidential elections, to be held in April and May. He is predicted to beat the unpopular Nicolas Sarkozy if the election were held tomorrow. But the French left is famous for losing presidential elections deemed impossible to lose.
Marie Le Pen, the extreme-right National Front leader, is polling high and reawakening the spectre of a repeat of the 2002 election when her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, knocked the left out of the final round. The centrist François Bayrou is creeping up. But, until now, Hollande has remained a mysterious figure, lacking in dynamism.
He used his first major rally to turn his image around. The rally, in the deprived Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, began with a pop concert by Yannick Noah, the former French tennis star-turned-singer who is France’s best-loved celebrity. Hollande then spoke, seizing on an Obama-style slogan of change and hope.
“Every nation has a soul. The soul of France is equality,” he said. He condemned a France that had become divided and unjust — ruled by a tiny elite — with tax breaks for the rich and eight million people living in poverty. His motto was the French dream — the simple idealism that started with the French revolution.
“Who is my adversary?” he asked. “It is the world of finance.”
If elected, first he would immediately pull French troops out of Afghanistan, form a new Franco-German “pact” and renegotiate the recent European treaty to dig the eurozone out of its crisis. Then he would rein in finance.
He appealed to traditional left-wing ideals and the republicanism of Charles de Gaulle. Addressing about 25 000 people in front of an untypical blue backdrop and tricolour flags and singing La Marseillaise, the national anthem — not the usual stock of Socialist rallies — he aimed to show he could be president of all the French.
Hollande, best known as the ex-partner of the failed former Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, touched on his upbringing in Normandy where his father, a doctor, had once run for the extreme right in local politics.
“The left wasn’t my heritage — I chose it,” he said. —