Socialist presidential candidate François Hollande, favored to unseat the deeply unpopular Nicolas Sarkozy, has soared to the top by losing 40 pounds, toughening his image and maintaining a "normal" persona.

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PARIS —

François Hollande began his march toward the pinnacle of French power three years ago: On June 27, 2009, he told 400 Socialist Party activists that they should unite to oust Nicolas Sarkozy.

The event was the first of almost 500 to make voters forget Hollande, 57, was nicknamed for a pudding brand and present him as a credible presidential candidate.

Along the way, he has had to fight doubts over his leadership ability, rifts among Socialist factions, the legacy of humiliating defeats on his watch as party chief in 2007 and 2002, and the shadow cast by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the favorite to run this year until his 2011 arrest in New York.

“Hollande has been misjudged by party colleagues,” said Jean-Pierre Jouyet, chief of France’s financial-markets regulator and a friend since their military training in 1977. “I spent the two summers with him after he made his decision to be a candidate, and while others took the nomination for granted, he was getting ready.”

Polls show Hollande’s determination may pay off. Sarkozy, the country’s most unpopular post-World War II president, is struggling to overcome the highest joblessness in 12 years and a disapproval rating that reached 64 percent in an Ifop poll published Sunday. The Socialist has led every survey since May 2011 and is extending his advantage in the days before the first round of voting Sunday. Hollande’s lead for the May 6 runoff had grown to 58 percent to 42 percent in a CSA poll published this week. That compares to a 14-point lead last week.

A native of Rouen, Hollande mainly has spent his career behind the scenes, beginning in 1981 as an aide to then-President François Mitterrand. A blank slate as a national candidate, Hollande set out to create a persona that he called “normal” to contrast with Sarkozy’s spotlight-seeking “President Bling Bling.”

“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’ Political Sciences Institute. “Maybe that’s what voters will ask for in the ballot, after five years of constant buzzing.”

Hollande would be France’s first Socialist leader since Mitterrand in 1995, and the only Socialist among the European chiefs leading the fight against the region’s financial crisis. His prescriptions, including a more activist central bank and revised treaties to promote growth and not simply enforce austerity, put him at odds with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“As for markets,” Jouyet said, “the postelection period will be tough for any candidate.” Still, Hollande “is fully capable of facing market demands.”

France, which lost its AAA credit rating at Standard & Poor’s in January, is fighting to avoid crisis fallout. The risk premium on 10-year French debt over Germany’s reached the highest since 1990 in November and has averaged 110 basis points this year. That’s about triple the level in 2009, before the market maelstrom began.

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.

In 2008, after 11 years, he quit as party first secretary, triggering an acrimonious succession fight between Ségolène Royal, the mother of Hollande’s four children, and Martine Aubry, who won.

Hollande planned a comeback with longtime allies, eventually declaring his candidacy in March 2011. He used his extended campaign to lose 40 pounds and toughen an image that had earned him the nickname “Flanby,” a caramel pudding.

“I had to mature from the lighthearted and funny first secretary of the party that I had been,” Hollande said last month. “I had to take it up a notch, show a more responsible, a more presidential face.”

“Hollande has plowed his own furrow, tilling the soil nearly unnoticed for all these years,” said Bernard Cottin, his campaign-finance chief and a friend since 1974. “He is dogged.”

Former Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin did not choose Hollande as part of his government, and he was left in charge 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. They separated in 2006.

Hollande, who reported income of 78,516 euros ($101,500 U.S.) in 2010, now rents a modern apartment with his partner, Paris Match journalist Valérie Trierweiler, in the 15th arrondissement of Paris. He says he holds no stocks and owns nothing like Sarkozy’s $65,000 Patek Philippe watch. Hollande vacations in a 1,400-square-foot house with a swimming pool near the Riviera (he bought the property with Royal in 1986 and now owns it 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 postwar presidents except Sarkozy and Charles de Gaulle.

Hollande attended HEC-Paris, an elite business school where he befriended some who became corporate leaders, such as Axa Chief Executive Officer Henri de Castries. His social circle includes Jean-Bernard Lévy, CEO of Vivendi, and Jean-Louis Beffa, former CEO of Cie. de Saint-Gobain.

“In these 30 years he has built strong support from rural France to labor unions and CEOs,” said Paul Boury, who heads the lobbying office Boury et Associes. “While Sarkozy promotes himself as business-friendly, Hollande keeps it quiet, but he isn’t any less connected. … He is the other France: Socialist and pro-business and markets.”

“Hollande is a social democrat in the sense that he accepts that the market is the ‘allocator by default’ of resources,” said London-based Gilles Moec, co-chief European economist at Deutsche Bank. “Also, he accepts that other civil actors, such as unions, not just the state, play an important role in shaping policies.”

That balance prompted former Socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon to form a bloc he has called the Left Front, which may pressure Hollande to adopt policies to make markets shudder.

While Hollande has called financial markets his “real enemy” and advocated cracking down on derivatives, he has committed to eliminating the budget deficit by 2017, albeit a year later than under Sarkozy’s plan. Hollande has said he would “defend the social model,” stop Sarkozy’s reduction in the civil service and increase taxes on the wealthy, including a 75 percent levy on earnings of more than 1 million euros ($1.3 million).

“If Obama asked me, ‘who is he?’ I would say that as a president, he is a totally unknown quantity,” said Ezra Suleiman, a Princeton political-science professor and member of the Suez Environnement supervisory board. “The hatred against Sarkozy has grown to such proportion in France that many voters have no choice but to trust him and hope he’ll have the shoulders for what unbelievably painstaking situation he could face starting May.”

Bloomberg News reporter Mark Deen contributed to this report.