PARIS (Reuters) - The sudden downfall of Dominique Strauss-Kahn has opened the way for a less flamboyant and more old-school leftist, Francois Hollande, to realise his childhood dream of becoming president of France.
Hollande, leading in opinion polls to be the Socialist Party’s candidate in the 2012 election since erstwhile favourite Strauss-Kahn was charged with attempted rape, is a grass-roots leftist with an easy-going and unpretentious manner who has slowly but steadily built up a strong following in his party.
Unlike the pro-market and centrist Strauss-Kahn -- out of the race as he prepares to fight charges he sexually assaulted a New York hotel maid -- Hollande, a left-wing activist since his twenties, will likely advocate higher taxes in his campaign and a slower reduction of France’s public deficit.
His watchword, stated in January, that he will be a “normal” candidate who would break with what critics see as conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy’s flashy, impulsive style may also serve him well as a contrast with Strauss-Kahn’s image as a womanising “champagne Socialist” from France’s “caviar Left”.
“The French are going to turn the page from a type of president associated with ‘bling bling’, who mixes with the powerful and don’t handle themselves well,” said political analyst Stephane Rozes. “They will be drawn towards candidates who appear simple, who control their actions and speeches.”
Hollande, whose political rise has been that of a tortoise rather than a hare, was on the campaign trail last week in the eastern city of Dijon, assuring supporters he is prepared “politically, psychologically and physically” for the race.
“A normal candidate does not mean a banal candidate,” he said. “It’s somebody who is able to listen and whose behaviour does not change according to their mood.”
A former leader of the Socialist party, Hollande is expected to be running against current party boss Martine Aubry -- if she confirms in the weeks ahead that she will seek the candidacy.
Surveys show that, like former IMF head Strauss-Kahn, Hollande could beat Sarkozy in a first-round vote, maintaining the left’s dream of winning back the presidency after three terms in opposition.
“He will play the natural guy, the genuine guy, against the candidate of structure,” said Christophe Barbier, editor of the weekly L‘Express, referring to the more wooden Aubry. “We are going to see something more coherent on the left.”
One French blogger described Hollande as on a “limp” quest for the presidency -- but also praised his authenticity.
Born on Aug. 12, 1954 in the northwestern city of Rouen into a middle class family, Hollande told his mother as a child he wanted to be president one day. He studied politics, joined his student union and became a Socialist Party activist, campaigning for Francois Mitterrand, president in 1981-1995.
In 1978 he enrolled at the Ecole Nationale d‘Administration, the prestigious graduate school that turns out most of France’s political elite, and met Segolene Royal who became his partner and had four children with him. Now separated, the pair are rivals for the Socialist Party primary in October.
Royal ran unsuccessfully against Sarkozy in 2007.
Hollande once said on TV: “I don’t like rich people”.
Many in France contrast him to Sarkozy and Strauss-Kahn, who have ranks of wealthy supporters and make no secret of enjoying life’s pricier luxuries.
Hollande sounds like a more traditional left-winger. He says the centre-right government is fooling the French by promising to cut the public deficit to three percent of GDP or less in 2013 but acknowledges spending needs to be curbed.
He supports higher taxes and at wider European level backs debt restructuring in countries that are struggling to keep their heads above water -- notably Greece.
“Instead of fixing targets that are socially unbearable and economically untenable, it would be better to pace the return to budget balance over a longer period, and reschedule or even restructure the debt of countries in difficulty, making the financial sector contribute to the restoration of order,” he says on his website www.francoishollande.fr.
That goes further than a Socialist Party manifesto which suggests the government’s 2013 deficit goal may be unrealistic.
While a major electoral weakness is that he has never held public office, Hollande commands respect among party supporters who care more about grassroots issues such as education standards than their candidate’s international stature.
Having relentlessly cultivated his power base and network of contacts at local, regional and national level over three decades of politics, he recently changed spectacles and went on a crash diet to shed his chubby cheeks.
His opinion poll ratings, already firm, have accelerated since Strauss-Kahn’s sudden exit from the race.
A handful of polls carried out since Strauss-Kahn’s exit have given him as much as 62 percent support for the Socialist primary, more than twice Aubry’s score and well ahead of Royal, who ran unsuccessfully against Sarkozy in 2007.
A May 20 IFOP survey gave him 26 percent in the first round of the 2012 election versus 22.5 percent for Sarkozy and 21 percent for National Front candidate Marine Le Pen.
Friends and allies say Hollande’s push to be seen as a down-to-earth candidate is a tactic to give him the necessary gravitas for France’s top job. He may also benefit from an ability to appeal to a wider electorate, beyond party lines.
Praise has come from an unlikely quarter in the shape of the wife of former conservative president Jacques Chirac.
“He is very funny. He knows how to work a crowd, a market, a fair, a local council,” Bernadette Chirac was quoted as saying some months ago.
“In politics, if you don’t have the human touch, there’s no point.”
Additional reporting by Jon Boyle, Helen Massy-Beresford, Marie Maitre and Leigh Thomas; Writing by Catherine Bremer, Brian Love and Jon Boyle; editing by Ralph Boulton