At first glance, the man who might be France's next president looks like an affable small-town lawyer, not a world leader in the making.
The former head of the Socialist Party has no government experience. At 57, he's never played a significant role on the international scene. He represents Corrèze, one of France's smallest départments, in the National Assembly, and his adversaries accuse him of being a perennial procrastinator – someone who's prone to act as a conciliator but is not a born leader. His nickname is Mr. Normal.
Martine Aubry, who succeeded him in 2008 as Socialist leader and was his main rival in the Socialist primaries that concluded last week with a firm victory for Mr. Hollande, complained that he had left the party in a terrible state after his 11-year tenure. She accused him of being a weakling, both ideologically and personally. (When she was off the record, she used to call him " couilles molles," meaning he has no balls).
Still, the French are in the mood for change, and President Nicolas Sarkozy's ratings are abysmally low. The same polls show that Mr. Hollande would easily defeat Mr. Sarkozy in the presidential election scheduled for May of 2012.
Unlike Ms. Aubry, a more radical socialist, Mr. Hollande's moderate and pragmatic views (he's an advocate of fiscal restraint) will allow him to reach out to the centre-right. His simple, low-key manner will also please the many voters fed up with Mr. Sarkozy's brash behaviour and hyperactive style of governing.
Actually, Mr. Hollande was not the first choice of the French Socialists, who, until last May, were feverishly waiting for Dominique Strauss-Kahn to quit the International Monetary Fund and run for the top job. Alas, their dream candidate fell off a cliff, and Mr. Hollande, who had started his campaign for the primaries last March, suddenly found himself, much to his surprise and delight, in the role of the front-runner.
Behind his lacklustre façade, though, Mr. Hollande is among the best and brightest of France's ruling class. He comes from the world of the " grandes écoles," the elitist network of postsecondary institutions that select the cream of the student population, leaving the others in overcrowded universities.
Mr. Hollande was first in his class at the prestigious École nationale d'administration, and he's known as a very cultured man. He also has a fine sense of humour, which serves him well in meetings. But political meetings are for those already committed, and most people follow election campaigns on television. Mr. Hollande is distinctly uneasy on TV – something that could hurt him when he faces Mr. Sarkozy, a political animal who's perfectly at home in front of a TV camera.
The Socialist primaries had one unusual element: sexual politics. Ségolène Royal, the party's presidential nominee in 2007 and Mr. Hollande's estranged former partner and mother of his four children, was among his rivals in the primaries. At one point, she rhetorically asked a reporter: "Can you tell me one thing François Hollande accomplished in 30 years in politics?"
Mr. Hollande took this blow with his characteristic sense of humour. Asked for a comment, he raised his four fingers (one per child) before quipping: "And that doesn't include the preparatory work."