Mr Normal faces no ordinary challenge

Winning came easy but François Hollande now has to learn to govern, writes Michael Mainville

HE DUBBED himself “Mr Normal” during France’s presidential election campaign, a modest scooter-riding everyman in touch with ordinary voters.

But, after winning France’s presidential vote, François 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.

Even a year ago, few would have expected to see 57-year-old Hollande moving into the Élysée Palace.

The then IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was seen as all but certain to be the Socialist candidate in last weekend’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, Ségolène Royal.

But he surged ahead during a US-style primary to beat rival Martine Aubry, appealing to the centre-left with vows to be a consensus-builder.

A protege of modernising former European Commission chairman Jacques Delors, Hollande is of the generation groomed under the only previous Socialist president, François 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 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, where in 1978 he met Royal to begin 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 Correze, but he lost.

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 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 Valérie Trierweiler. She reportedly encouraged him to lose 22lb 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.


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