Hollande, the man 'no one saw coming,' prepares to lead France

Once characterized as unassuming and almost banal, France's president-elect, François Hollande, is now being tagged as 'savvy' and 'steely.'

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters
France's newly-elected President Francois Hollande arrives at his apartment in Paris May 7, a day after the French presidential election.

The president-elect of France who would “change the direction of Europe” has never held high office.

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.

Hollande was born in Rouen. He was close to his mother, a leftist Catholic social worker; his father was a doctor and right-wing ideologue. He was educated by monks in Normandy. He went to high school in Neuilly, the same wealthy Paris suburb where Sarkozy was once mayor and where the Hollandes moved at age 14. His four closest friends from high school later went on to be star comedians in Les Bronzes, a popular set of films. Hollande himself is known for his love of humor and jokes.

He was influenced early on by the 1968 radical-left student movement in Paris. He graduated seventh in his class from France’s elite École Nationale d'Administration – where he met Ms. Royale, his former partner and mother of his four children – in 1980.

Holland and Royale were political protégés of François Mitterrand, who was elected president on the Socialist ticket in 1981. On European issues, Hollande sat at the feet of the eminent Jacques Delors, architect of a broader, deeper, antinationalistic political integration that inspired the European Union

This side of Hollande emerged in debates inside the Socialist Party two years ago over the Lisbon Treaty, which created a more comprehensive structure for the European Union and which Hollande backed. During the 2012 campaign, Hollande championed the smaller nations of Europe that he said were being herded into a Franco-German dictate on austerity.

“Hollande is the opposite of the anti-Europe factions that emerged in this [2012] campaign” on both the far-left and far-right, says Arun Kapil of Catholic University of Paris. “He is not a Euroskeptic.”

Hollande describes himself not as a card-carrying “leftist,” but rather a pragmatic social democrat, a Keynesian advocating a “kinder, gentler” austerity model for Europe amid its economic crisis. He is unlikely to veer France in any radical direction of public spending. He said in Le Monde before the election that the revolutionary zeal of socialism in the 19th century has matured and tempered, and is seen more today in ideas of progress rather than angry militancy.

“Progress is no longer an ideology but it remains a fertile idea. I am a militant of progress," he said in Le Monde.

His campaign promises to tax income over $1.3 million at a 75 percent rate and to hire 60,000 more teachers have yet to be fleshed out and it's not clear yet whether he'll be able to carry them out.

Hollande has also indicated that he does not intend to carry on the French-German powerhouse partnership that earned Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel the nickname "Merkozy." While other European leaders have spoken out against Germany's control over the eurozone's recovery efforts, as head of the No. 2 economy in Europe, Hollande is the first EU leader able to challenge Ms. Merkel.

“As much as I believe in a Franco-German engine,” he said in a profile in Slate.fr today, “I contest the idea of a duo-poly,” to run Europe. “This balance has been modified in the last few years. The Franco-German relationship has been exclusive,” to the detriment of the "most fragile states,” he said.

More on all matters Hollande is forthcoming: French media today report that seven new biographies on the next president are pending. 

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