Hollande, the man 'no one saw coming,' prepares to lead France (+video)
Once characterized as unassuming and almost banal, France's president-elect, François Hollande, is now being tagged as 'savvy' and 'steely.'
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François Hollande has spent decades being underestimated – as leader of the Socialist Party, as a politician in the French National Assembly, as a man in male-centric French politics who was willing to defer his ambitions to those of his partner Ségolène Royal as she ran against Nicolas Sarkozy for president in 2007. During that 2007 campaign, Mr. Hollande was widely derided as “Monsieur Royale.”
Hollande wasn’t even a contender for 2012 until a series of sex scandals sank Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former IMF chief and ostensible Socialist party nominee. Nor was he considered important enough to be invited to Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s summer 2009 gala birthday party, says Serge Raffy, Hollande’s biographer.
In the 2012 French election story line, Hollande was the nice-guy softie who leads by consensus and had a decisiveness problem as party leader 10 years ago. Mr. Sarkozy, the French political Rottweiler, felt sure he would rattle Hollande – his word was “maul” – in nationally televised debates last week.
Yet underestimation by others may have clinched Hollande’s victory Sunday.
Elites in the Socialist Party were certainly surprised last October when Hollande emerged to win the nomination as an electable, moderate choice.
“No one saw me coming,” Hollande told Ouest France, the nation’s largest-circulation newspaper, in an post-election piece this morning. As part of his preparation, Hollande lost 40 pounds and took on a sleeker image.
Hollande descriptive adjectives are now well-worn: Mild. Genial. Unassuming. He worked so hard to be “Mr. Normal,” says Dominique Moisi, a leading Paris intellectual, that he succeeded, “and almost began to appear banal.” Until a few weeks ago, he still rode his motor scooter to campaign headquarters in Paris. Just an ordinary guy.
But after Sunday’s win, after a full-on, pounding, street-fight debate with Sarkozy – who admits he underestimated Hollande – a new set of descriptors is emerging: determined, pragmatic, steely, relentless, savvy.
“He doesn’t like confrontation, but he is at the same time not weak,” says Hubert Vedrine, France's foreign minister between 1997 and 2002.
Hollande’s life, in fact, has been a set of contradictions that insiders say add up to more than the sum of their parts. He is both patient and stubborn, traits seen in his plodding path to the French palace.