François Hollande, the French left’s greatest hope to beat Nicolas Sarkozy in next year’s presidential election, is looking confident. A year ago it would have been hard to believe that the easygoing rural parliamentarian from the central Corrèze region could be the man most likely to defeat Mr Sarkozy in 2012, but opinion polls now cast him in that role.
He has hardly registered on the political landscape since quitting as Socialist party leader in 2008. Even during 11 years in charge of the Socialists, he was frequently overshadowed by heavyweights such as his former partner Ségolène Royale, the Socialists’ presidential candidate in 2007, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund who is facing trial in the US over a sex scandal.
But for the past 12 months Mr Hollande has been focusing on the grassroots, travelling up and down the country in preparation for the presidential bid that escaped him in 2007 – and even shedding a fair few pounds to present a new, more dynamic image.
“I have renewed myself, while not breaking with my past,” says Mr Hollande.
The countdown has begun for the Socialist party primary, which will pitch Mr Hollande against Martine Aubry, his successor as party leader, who is expected to declare her bid today.
“Personalities will count now – who has the right vision, who has the consistency, who can win,” Mr Hollande says.
The 57-year-old is aware that his own past is open to criticism as he sets out on the next four months of campaigning. He was party leader when the left suffered a humiliating defeat to the far-right National Front in the first round of the 2002 election. He is accused of having failed to impose his will on a divided party, helping to keep it out of power in 2007.
“It was a very sombre phase for the Socialists,” says Dominique Reynié, of Sciences Po university in Paris.
Yet Ms Aubry also has weaknesses. She was responsible for introducing the 35-hour week under prime minister Lionel Jospin. Worse, she hesitated to announce her candidacy after the elimination of Mr Strauss-Kahn. “People don’t have the impression she really wants to be president,” says Mr Reynié. “That is a big weakness.”
If there is little ideological difference between Mr Hollande and Ms Aubry, those who know Mr Hollande well say he is perhaps best placed to deal with the question of stretched public finances. Mr Hollande was one of the brightest in an already remarkable year at the elite ENA university that trains France’s ruling class, and he has taught economics at Sciences-Po.
Known as a moderate, Mr Hollande is keen to point out that he has taken “new positions, on fiscal reform and on competitiveness”. He wants to shift the burden of social security financing from labour to income. “In France, work is over-taxed and over-burdened,” he says.
He is careful to balance traditional socialism with modern pragmatism. He is aware that his strongest political advantage is that he shares the broad church appeal of Mr Strauss-Kahn.
“Today the polls show centrists will come over to me,” says Mr Hollande. “They are 5-7 per cent [of the electorate] and they are the real challenge of the presidential election.”
Centrists will consider the risks of a traditional left that wants to “change or upset everything”, he says, and would “scare them off”. The bigger danger, and the gamble Mr Hollande trusts they will not take, is “keeping Sarkozy”.
That would be a “real risk for the cohesion of the country,” he says. “They will choose the left.”
No doubt he is counting on his name being on the ballot.