The self-styled ‘Mr Normal’ is a cautious, pragmatic and affable social democrat who has spent his working life in politics. But does François Hollande have the charisma and showmanship to represent France on the world stage?
He lost his first election 31 years ago, has never held a ministerial job and watched from the sideline as his then partner was propelled into the 2007 presidential campaign limelight. But now, after a considerable amount of patience and persistence, François Hollande has achieved what he has wanted to do since he was 11, following in the steps of his old mentor and idol François Mitterrand to become only the second Socialist president in the history of France’s Fifth Republic. “Timing is essential in politics – making good use of time,” Hollande said in a recent interview. “You need to know when to take your time, and not rush. People who are too rushed sometimes never get there. Others think they have all the time in the world and they waste it.”
It all started with political disagreements around the dinner table in the rural family home in Haute-Normandie. Hollande’s mother, Nicole, was a factory worker and unionist. His authoritarian father Georges, a doctor, was of a far-right persuasion, standing in the municipal elections twice without success, and his views frequently clashed with those of his son.
“He had such a dark view,” says Hollande.
“He always thought the future would be worse, that we were in a crisis. Thanks to him, I started thinking the opposite. I became confident.”
The 1965 elections saw an 11-year-old Hollande captivated in front of the television. “He saw François Mitterrand as a hero,” says biographer Serge Raffy, editor of the Nouvel Observateur. “While some children were inspired by characters like Tin Tin, François was inspired by Mitterrand.”
The family moved to Neuilly-sur-Seine, a close suburb of Paris, at the height of the 1968 unrest, and when he was not studying or listening to The Doors and the Moody Blues, the teen Hollande would be out attending his first big political demonstrations, including the Fête de l’Humanité which he first visited at the age of 15. He was in the crowd at the key 1971 Socialist rally in Epinaysur-Seine where Mitterrand was appointed party leader.
After a spell at Sciences-Po, Hollande was admitted to the top political school ENA in 1978, in the same class as Dominique de Villepin. Also in that year’s intake was Ségolène Royal. The pair are pictured next to each other in the class photo, and went on to have four children. In an anti-establishment move, they pledged never to marry.
Despite his down-to-earth, jovial appearance, there is no doubt that Hollande is fiercely competitive and ambitious. Evidence of this came when, aged just 27, less than a year after graduating from ENA, he was dispatched to the Corrèze to take on Jacques Chirac in the parliamentary election. Chirac was defensive, describing his young adversary as “less well known than Mitterrand’s labrador”, and Hollande’s attempt did not work first time around. But, as Socialist MP Michel Sapin notes: “The plan was to get noticed. It was very provocative. And above all, he didn’t go away – he stayed there.” Thirty years later, Chirac praised Hollande in his memoirs as a “true statesman” and is understood to have voted for him over Sarkozy in the elections. Hollande did not retreat back to Paris after the 1981 defeat. Instead, he spent the next seven years getting known in the area, and he eventually won the seat. At the same time, Royal became MP for the Deux-Sèvres. The work-life balance, with three children at the time, was difficult. As his cousin Hélène says: “François and Ségolène were absorbed by politics. It was all they did: politics and childcare. They had no real social life.” Hollande adds: “I had to make sacrifices, but I don’t get the impression that our family life suffered.” A difficult period followed, with Hollande passed over for a ministerial job in 1992, while Royal became environment minister. He recalls: “Mitterrand said: don’t worry. Your time will come. Maybe he did me a favour.”
After Mitterrand, his next mentor would be Lionel Jospin, who became prime minister in 1997. After a long time in the background, Hollande became a key figure in the party, leading it for 11 years. Jospin says in a recent interview: “He’s politically intelligent, a loyal man, a man who has confidence in his abilities but who isn’t troubled by ego problems.”
However, it was Royal that was chosen to challenge Sarkozy in the 2007 elections. At the same time, the couple’s relationship broke down, but they agreed to keep their split private until after the elections. It later emerged that Hollande had been having an affair with Paris Match journalist Valerie Trierweiler, now France’s first lady.
Trierweiler has been widely credited with being the driving force behind Hollande’s new image – after years of jokes about his round appearance, with nicknames including Flanby, after the wobbly caramel dessert. However, there was another contributing factor.When his mother, Nicole, died in 2009, Hollande’s ambition to succeed and prove himself moved up a gear. He lost 12kg in a crash diet, invested in a new wardrobe and, in his home town of Tulle, where he is a local hero, announced in March 2011 that he would run for president.
Hollande successfully realised that the result of the election would not be decided in Paris. He made many of his key speeches in Tulle and attached great importance to rural campaigning, as well as heading to London and the overseas territories. The man of the people image struck a chord with voters disillusioned with Sarkozy’s ostentatiousness – the “president of the rich” with his Aviator sunglasses, Rolex watch and who celebrated his 2007 election with a meal for 55 in the Champs-Elysées’ most exclusive restaurant.
German news magazine Der Spiegel says of Hollande: “Making people feel that you understand them is a gift. Hollande has it, unlike Sarkozy, for whom interacting with citizens is a burden. During factory tours, for example, Hollande converses cheerfully with the workers. He seems relaxed.”
This month’s parliamentary elections, on June 10 and 17, are crucial if Hollande’s party is to keep up the momentum.
- 1954: Born in Rouen suburb of Bois-Guillaume
- 1968: Family moved to Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris, during height of May riots
- 1981: Graduates from ENA. Becomes adviser to Mitterrand. Challenges Jacques Chirac for Corrèze MP seat and loses
- 1984: First child, Thomas, born with partner Ségolène Royal. Three others follow
- 1988: Elected MP for Corrèze
- 1997: Becomes leader of the Socialist party, replacing Lionel Jospin
- 2001: Elected mayor of Tulle, Corrèze
- 2007: Splits with Ségolène Royal, who is defeated in the presidential election
- 2011: Chosen to be Socialist candidate in elections. Wins on May 6, 2012