France's 'Mr Normal' Hollande moves into Elysee

AFP , Monday 7 May 2012

Francois Hollande is elected France's first Socialist president in nearly two decades, promising change in Europe after dealing a humiliating defeat to incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy

France's newly-elected President Francois Hollande waves from his car as he leaves his apartment in Paris May 7, 2012, the day after his election. (Photo: Reuters )

He dubbed himself "Mr Normal" during France's presidential election campaign, a modest scooter-riding everyman in touch with the concerns of ordinary voters.

But, after winning France's presidential vote, Socialist Francois Hollande faces some far-from-ordinary challenges as the leader of the eurozone's second-largest economy, a nuclear-armed UN Security Council member.

Derided by critics as inexperienced and soft -- and nicknamed "Flanby" after a brand of wobbly pudding -- Hollande is set for a crash course in governing after his victory over incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.

"I am what you see, there is no artifice. I don't need a disguise. I am who I am. Simple, direct, free," Hollande said in the campaign, during which he contrasted his humble style with that of the flashy and aggressive Sarkozy.

Even a year ago, few would have expected to see the 57-year-old Hollande packing his bags for a move into the Elysee Palace.

The then IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was seen as all but certain to be the Socialist candidate in Sunday's vote, until his stunning fall from grace in May after sexual assault charges in New York.

At the time Hollande, a backroom deal-maker who led the Socialists for 11 years, was perhaps best known as the former partner of the party's telegenic 2007 candidate, Segolene Royal.

But he surged ahead during a US-style primary to beat rival Martine Aubry, appealing to the centre-left with with vows to be a consensus-builder, despite his only experience being as a local official in his adopted Correze region.

He has held an opinion poll lead over Sarkozy from the moment of his nomination and -- notwithstanding a few late surges in support for the incumbent -- never fell behind.

A protege of modernising former European Commission chairman Jacques Delors, Hollande is of the generation groomed under the only previous Socialist president, Francois Mitterrand, who left office in 1995.

Born in 1954 in the northern city of Rouen, Hollande was the son of a doctor with far-right sympathies and of a social worker.

His father later moved the family to Neuilly-sur-Seine, the posh Paris suburb where Sarkozy was also raised.

He was educated at the elite Ecole National d'Administration (ENA), where in 1978 he met Royal and the couple started a three-decade relationship.

In 1981, after Mitterrand swept to power, Hollande challenged Jacques Chirac -- who later became French president -- in his parliamentary fiefdom in the rural region of Correze, but lost.

Chirac, who once mocked Hollande as "less well-known than Mitterrand's Labrador", retains affection for his old rival and even said he would vote for the Socialist, though he later passed off his remark as a joke.

Hollande eventually won the seat in 1988 and was re-elected in 1997, 2002 and 2007.

In 1997 he took over the Socialist Party leadership, a post he held until 2008 when he was replaced by former labour minister Aubry, also the daughter of his former mentor Delors.

Some had pushed for Hollande to take on Sarkozy in the 2007 race but Royal had already emerged as the leading Socialist nominee.

The couple, who by then had four children, split before the vote but news of the break-up did not emerge until after Royal's defeat.

Hollande is now in a relationship with political journalist Valerie Trierweiler. She reportedly encouraged him to lose 10 kilogrammes (22 pounds) of unpresidential body fat and adopt thinner-framed glasses for the campaign.

Concerns that Hollande was too mild-mannered and academic to take on Sarkozy disappeared as the race went on and he emerged as a tough campaigner, his speeches sprinkled with dry humour.

His performance during the campaign's only face-to-face debate -- when he fended off an increasingly aggressive Sarkozy accusing him of "lies" and "slander" -- was particularly lauded.

"He has changed. It's as if he started wearing this suit as the days went on," Trierweiler said. "He is completely ready to take office."

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