Francois Hollande reached the pinnacle of French power today still declaring himself to be, as he campaigned, a “normal” guy.
Hollande told a group of reporters yesterday, on the eve of his swearing in, that he would continue living in the rented apartment that he shares with his partner, Paris Match magazine journalist Valerie Trierweiler, for 3,000 euros ($3,932) a month, parking included, in the 15th arrondissement of Paris. He has also swatted away questions about them marrying.
Such commonplace ways would be one source of agreement with his German counterpart, Angela Merkel, the linchpin of European politics who does her own grocery shopping and lives with her second husband in a 19th century apartment building in central Berlin. Hollande travels to meet Merkel later today following ceremonies at the Elysee Palace to begin their joint effort to quell the financial crisis. They are scheduled to hold a press briefing at 7:45 p.m. in Berlin.
“Hollande is the male version of Merkel: stubborn, dogged and yet he knows how to create consensus,” said Francois Heisbourg, chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “He is unremarkable at first, but then he can expand in his capacity.”
Hollande began his march to the presidency in Lorient, a Breton port, three years ago. On June 27, 2009, he told 400 Socialist Party activists they needed to unite to oust Nicolas Sarkozy.
It was the first of his almost 500 events in France’s longest-ever campaign to make voters forget he was nicknamed for a pudding brand and get them to choose him rather than Sarkozy, who had promised to be their “captain in the storm.”
Along the way, Hollande, 57, had to fight doubts over his leadership ability, rifts among Socialist factions, the legacy of humiliating defeats on his watch as party chief in 2002 and 2007, and the shadow cast by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the favorite to run this year until his 2011 arrest in New York.
“While it was hard some months ago to imagine that his ‘moderate man’ image, some call it soft, would be convincing, the fact that he embodies the reverse of Sarkozy created a real rivalry,” said Jean Chiche, a senior researcher at Paris’s Political Sciences Institute. “Personality was a key element of the May 6 vote,” Chiche said, as voters sought a change “after five years of constant buzzing.”
Hollande’s inauguration marks the return of a Socialist at the helm of France after Francois Mitterrand. He becomes the only Socialist among the European chiefs leading the fight against financial crisis. His prescriptions including a more activist central bank and revised treaties to promote growth -- and not just enforce austerity -- put him at odds with Merkel, who had campaigned for Sarkozy.
Hollande was elected by nearly 19 million French voters or 51.6 percent for a five-year mandate, nearly the same score that got Mitterrand first elected in 1981 with 51.7 percent of the votes.
A native of Rouen, the Norman city where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake by the English in the 15th century, Hollande has spent his career mainly behind the scenes.
He began in 1981 as an aide to then-President Mitterrand and has never held a minister’s job. A blank slate as a national candidate, Hollande set out to create a persona he called “normal” to contrast with Sarkozy’s “President Bling Bling,” a leader who sought the spotlight.
“Power will be exercised with dignity and simplicity,” Hollande said today in an 11-minute address at the Elysee after Sarkozy left. “Conduct will be scrupulously sober.”
A lawmaker representing a district in rural France, Hollande struggled for nearly 15 years to be considered the natural Socialist leader, forcing him to seek support from the base rather than from the capital’s power networks.
He quit as party first secretary in 2008 after 11 years, triggering an acrimonious succession fight between Martine Aubry and Segolene Royal, the mother of his four children and the loser to Sarkozy five years ago. Aubry won amid accusations by Royal of cheating. Meantime, Hollande went off the radar to plot a comeback in discreet encounters with long-time allies.
Over the winter holidays that year, Hollande discussed his presidential hopes with his partner Trierweiler, she recounted. “Do you think you’re the best?” she asked. “Yes,” Hollande responded. “Then go,” said the 47-year-old lifelong reporter and mother of three adolescent boys.
Then Hollande emerged in Lorient. He eventually declared his candidacy in March 2011 in Tulle, the town in central France where he headed the local council of Correze and which he represented in the national parliament. It was in Tulle, which he led as mayor for seven years until 2008, that he gave his May 6 victory speech and told the cheering crowd “I owe you everything.”
Hollande used his extended campaign to lose 40 pounds and toughen an image that had earned him the nickname “Flanby,” a Nestle SA caramel pudding.
“I had to mature from the light-hearted and funny first secretary of the party that I had been for 11 years,” Hollande told a group of reporters in the southern town of Montpellier during his campaign. “I had to take it up a notch, show a more responsible, a more presidential face.”
In May last year, Hollande trailed Strauss-Kahn, then International Monetary Fund chief, in opinion polls. The economist and former finance minister abandoned a possible bid after he was arrested in New York City on sexual-assault charges. Those charges were dropped by U.S. prosecutors in August.
Behind the Scenes
Former Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin never chose him to be part of his government and he was left to heal the devastated party after Jospin was bounced in the first round of the 2002 presidential race by the far-right National Front. It was Royal who held three ministers’ jobs and won the 2007 nomination to run for president. She made their 2006 separation public after losing the election.
Hollande, who lives with Trierweiler on the Rue Cauchy near the Javel metro station and Parc Andre Citroen, reported income of 78,516 euros in 2010 and total assets worth 1.17 million euros, mainly in real estate assets. He says he holds no stocks and owns nothing like the 50,000-euro Patek Philippe SA watch that was given to Sarkozy by his third wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.
He vacations in a 130 square meter (1400 square foot) house with swimming pool near the Riviera bought in 1986 with Royal and that he now owns outright.
Hollande’s path to power followed a traditional French route. He graduated from the Institute for Political Sciences in Paris and the National School of Administration, schools that trained all post-war presidents, except Sarkozy and Charles de Gaulle.
He’d been educated at HEC-Paris, an elite business school where he befriended some who were to become corporate leaders, such as Axa SA Chief Executive Officer Henri de Castries. His social circle includes Jean-Bernard Levy, CEO of Vivendi SA, and Jean-Louis Beffa, former CEO of Cie. de Saint-Gobain.
While Hollande has called financial markets his “real enemy” and advocated cracking down on derivatives and leveraged buyout firms, he has committed to eliminating the budget deficit by 2017, a task that may prove harder with the French economy stagnant in the first quarter. He has said he would “defend the social model,” stop Sarkozy’s reduction in the civil service, increase the minimum wage and raise taxes on the wealthy, including a 75 percent levy on earnings of more than 1 million euros.
Hollande speaks little English and his first conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama on the night of his victory went through translators. There’s more than language to learn on the fly. On May 17, the presidential Airbus heads to Washington for a bilateral meeting with Obama and then to Camp David, the White House retreat in Maryland, for a Group of Eight summit to be followed by a meeting of NATO leaders in Chicago.