- Associated Press - Monday, October 17, 2011

PARIS (AP) — Four-and-a-half years ago, France got a leader dubbed the “hyperpresident” — a pro-American, free-market politician who flouted tradition and went jogging on his first day in office.

This spring, the Socialist Party’s strongest potential competitor to conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy became the target of sex-crimes accusations that grabbed headlines across the world and focused attention on Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s history of infidelities and behavior toward women.

Now, the French appear to be in the mood for a change.

On Sunday, the Socialists nominated Francois Hollande, an affable, soft-spoken and witty former longtime party boss, as their candidate for what is likely to be a presidential election showdown next May against Mr. Sarkozy. Opinion polls show Mr. Hollande is far more popular than the vastly unpopular incumbent.

When asked “Why you?” in an interview published in Le Parisien newspaper Saturday, Mr. Hollande first answered, “Because I can beat Nicolas Sarkozy.”

Mr. Hollande, a bespectacled, 57-year-old career politician, has built his reputation as a manager and consensus-builder more than a visionary. He’s virtually unknown outside France, and critics say he has limited international experience to head this nuclear-armed nation.

Mr. Sarkozy’s backers went on the counteroffensive on Monday, trying to depict Mr. Hollande as wishy-washy, lackluster and unprincipled.

“What do people say about Francois Hollande? They say he’s skillful; they never say he’s courageous,” Jean-Francois Cope, who leads Mr. Sarkozy’s UMP party, told reporters. “Now he will face the question: What is it to take a courageous decision? It’s taking a decision that risks being unpopular but is good for the country.”

Mr. Sarkozy has had no shortage of bold decisions — not all perceived as good for France — and he definitely has grown unpopular: His popularity ratings have hovered around 30 percent for months, after winning with 53 percent of the vote in the 2007 presidential race.

Still, with France’s economy struggling and international competition stiff, many observers say Mr. Hollande will need to project a stronger image to counter Mr. Sarkozy. He’s recently taken to uttering the word “strong” or its derivatives.

“This victory confers on me the strength and the legitimacy to prepare for the great appointment with the presidential race,” said Mr. Hollande, known for being good on the stump and a quick-witted debater, in Sunday’s victory speech.

Mr. Hollande is a lawmaker in the National Assembly and the governor of the central Correze region — the same political backyard as conservative former President Jacques Chirac — and led the Socialist party from 1997 to 2008.

Critics say his resume is otherwise thin: He has never run a government ministry, has limited international recognition, and made his name as leader of a party that was weakened and badly fractured during his tenure.

Mr. Hollande led the party in 2002 when its top national politician, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, embarrassingly failed to qualify for the presidential runoff. The Socialists split badly three years later over the proposed European Union Constitution, which French voters rejected in a referendum.

Mr. Hollande’s former partner — Segolene Royal, the mother of his four children — was the Socialists’ last presidential nominee. Their relationship unraveled during the 2007 campaign, and they later separated. She ran again this year but lost badly in the first phase of the primary on Oct. 9.

Mr. Hollande, who once quipped that he dislikes the rich, sparked a political furor in the run-up to the 2007 election by advocating a tax increase for those French who earned over 4,000 euros ($5,500) a month.

“He must not like himself,” Mr. Sarkozy quipped then in a TV debate.

Mr. Hollande’s program calls for reversing cuts in education by Mr. Sarkozy’s government, a new work contract to encourage companies to hire young people, and a focus on reducing France’s high state budget deficit. It says little about international affairs, other than calling for an unspecified “pact” with Germany, the EU’s economic engine, to spur on the now-troubled European project.

In 2008, Mr. Hollande supported Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy while admitting that such an endorsement could dent Mr. Obama’s image with the U.S. electorate given the way some American voters regard socialism.

Mr. Hollande has a top-flight educational pedigree, with degrees from the reputed HEC business school, Sciences Po political institute, and the finishing school for French political and management elites known as ENA.

His strategy, in part, is to cast himself as the anti-Sarkozy. The macho president made his name as a hard-as-nails interior minister who led a crackdown on crime for much of the 2000s.

Early this year, the most anticipated Socialist front-runner was Mr. Strauss-Kahn, then head of the International Monetary Fund. His political career all but ended in May when he was jailed briefly in the United States after a New York hotel maid accused him of rape. Prosecutors later dropped the case, but Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s reputation and presidential ambitions crashed.

A popular French satirical TV show, “Les Guignols de l’Info,” recently depicted Mr. Hollande as a sort of goofy simpleton with a dopey laugh, a marked contrast to its scheming, self-important puppet of Mr. Sarkozy.

Political wags this year noted that Mr. Hollande’s weight loss and new use of frameless eyeglasses coincided with his rise in the polls — as if the makeover helped his image.

Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande have squared off electorally before: Each led his party’s list for the 1999 European Parliament elections.

In a round-table debate ahead of that vote, Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande sparred. At one point Mr. Sarkozy said his rival “is not an intimate friend, in any way — notably because our political convictions are different.”

Retorted Mr. Hollande, tartly: “And doesn’t plan on becoming one.”

Though turnout was dismal, the Socialists handily won that 1999 vote, and Mr. Sarkozy headed for a three-year spell in the political wilderness.

A quintessential political survivor, Mr. Sarkozy must never be underestimated, some on the left say.

“Those who think that it is enough to say bad things about President Sarkozy to get elected are badly mistaken,” said Jean-Luc Melenchon, who heads a small hard-left party, on France-Info radio. “Our country deserves better than collective hate.”

Associated Press writer Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.

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