In style and probably in substance, France’s incoming president could not be more different than the country’s outgoing leader.
François Hollande’s political rise to the country’s top post has been slow and steady, with the French media portraying him as “Monsieur Normal” – an easygoing, everyday man. Contrast that with the glamour-struck Nicolas Sarkozy, who earned the nickname “hyper-president” during his five years in office.
If Hollande’s victory has a fabled quality, it surely mirrors Aesop’s “The Hare and The Tortoise”, with the steady, shelled creature finally outpacing the hyperactive hare.
International audiences are probably more familiar with his former partner, Ségolène Royal, who unsuccessfully ran against Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential poll. For those who knew him during the 2012 campaign trail – and that includes his comrades on the left – Hollande was the butt of snide, if good-natured, monikers, including “Flanby” (a wobbly custard) and “capitaine du pedalo,’ or the captain of a pedal boat.
But in the course of his bid for presidency, Hollande emerged as a statesman-like figure, a change that included an image makeover, complete with a 10 kilo weight loss and designer glasses.
In substance, the transformation was apparent during the only televised debate of the 2012 presidential campaign, when the 57-year-old Socialist politician exuded confidence as he sat back and took on a pugnacious, finger-jabbing Sarkozy.
Catholic upbringing, education in prestigious institutions
Hollande’s easy-going nature, however, belies a determination he maintained over a 30-year political career that has seen him serve as Socialist Party boss, a small town mayor and leader of an administrative region in central France.
Born into a middle class family in the northern French city of Rouen, Hollande’s mother, Nicole, was a social worker and his father, Georges, a medical doctor. An authoritative father, Georges was once a far-right candidate in a local election. Hollande was much closer to his mother, a former Socialist militant. While the family name “Hollande” is believed to come from Calvinist ancestors who escaped the Netherlands, Hollande was brought up as a Catholic.
Unlike Sarkzoy, Hollande’s educational background mirrors that of France’s political elites. After graduating from one of the country’s foremost business schools, Hollande won admission to France’s prestigious Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris. Known by its acronym, ENA, the Paris-based school has traditionally supplied France’s political elites.
It was during his time at ENA that Hollande met Ségolène Royal, who would be his partner for the next 30 years. The couple had four children together.
France’s high-flying power couple
Hollande started his political career as a student volunteer for François Mitterrand’s unsuccessful 1974 presidential bid. By the time Mitterrand was elected to the Elysée presidential palace in 1981, Hollande had become a special adviser to the newly-elected Socialist president, before serving as a staffer for the government's spokesman.
His political stints included representative of the central Corrèze region and mayor of the town of Tulle. Meanwhile, his partner, Royal, went on to serve as Environment Minister in 1992, as the duo turned into the epitome of the high-flying power couple.
While attention was focused on Royal as she entered the national political stage, Hollande chose to climb the Socialist party ranks. In 1997 he became party leader, a position he retained following Lionel Jospin’s 2002 unsuccessful bid for the presidency.
Those were difficult days for the party and Hollande was seen as a quiet, dependable figure taking over the party reins – a role he played during Royal’s 2007 bid for the presidency.
But his partner’s presidential campaign put a noticeable strain on the relationship, and shortly after Royal’s defeat to Sarkozy the couple announced their separation.
Hollande’s girlfriend, Valerie Trierweiler, a political journalist, is widely seen as an asset to the presidential ticket.
But Hollande himself was not viewed as a Socialist presidential candidate until front-runner Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former IMF chief and Socialist frontrunner, was arrested in New York in May 2011 on sexual assault charges, effectively ending Strauss-Kahn’s presidential hopes.
In October 2011, Hollande won the French Socialist primary, becoming the party’s candidate to run against Sarkzoy. The rest, as they say, is history.