- - Thursday, March 29, 2012

PARIS — Francois Hollande, a major contender in France’s presidential race, is widely known as “Monsieur Normal” — even by his political opponents — and the Socialist leader has been exploiting that image to his advantage.

“I prefer being a normal candidate rather than an abnormal president,” Mr. Hollande said in an interview on French television, alluding to incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy’s “bling-bling” presidency named for his taste for yachts and events at the elite Fouquet’s restaurant in Paris.

Apparently, many voters want “normal” to help France find its bearings after five years of the ultra-energetic and conservative Mr. Sarkozy.

The latest polls predict Mr. Hollande would win a runoff election with Mr. Sarkozy in May by 54 percent to 46 percent, which would make him France’s first leftist president since Francois Mitterrand left office in 1995.

However, in the wake of a killing spree by a self-proclaimed Islamist extremist in Toulouse, Mr. Hollande has lost his longtime lead in the first round of voting, scheduled for April 22. New polls show Mr. Sarkozy leading, 28.5 percent to 27 percent.

Despite Mr. Sarkozy’s surge in first-round polls, Hollande supporters said they are not worried about the outcome of the presidential election.

Mr. Hollande “has a sense of the state, a sense of the republic he is a real democrat,” said Socialist supporter Clara Ricci, as she handed out flyers for the candidate at a subway station in Paris.

“I’m very depressed by what happened recently [the killings], and I believe that he will try to rally the French,” Ms. Ricci said. “He won’t create divisions within the society, or at least, he will not fuel them. [He is] the famous normal candidate.”

Still, analysts say Monsieur Normal has needed to transform himself into more than the anti-Sarkozy candidate and become a candidate who can win over French voters, who are particularly picky about clothing, style and slimness. He has started with his looks.

“I left him on July 14 and he was quite fat, I saw him again on Sept. 2 and he was thin — he smiled and said, ‘See, I have made an effort,’” said Bernard Combes, Socialist mayor of the city of Tulle, and Mr. Hollande’s alternate lawmaker in the Correze constituency in south-central France. “I didn’t even know that he intended to do so — he is very modest, almost secretive.”

It may be that modest manner that has kept Mr. Hollande out of the spotlight, in the shadows of the Socialist Party for years.

He joined the Socialist Party in 1979 at age 25, where he was spotted by Jacques Attali, a close aide to Mr. Mitterrand. When Mr. Mitterrand was elected president two years later, Mr. Hollande became a junior economic adviser on his team.

At the same time, he ran for the National Assembly seat against future president Jacques Chirac in the conservative, rural constituency of Correze. He lost in 1981, but managed to win the seat in 1988, earning himself a reputation for tenacity mixed with bonhomie.

In 1997, he succeeded Lionel Jospin as the head of Socialist Party, which he led for 11 years.

His leadership was mocked in his own ranks as dull and consensual, and few Socialists took him seriously: Many within the party’s left wing accused him of being too soft, earning him the nicknames “Flamby” (a French pudding) or “Mr. Royal” in reference to his longtime partner, Segolene Royal, with whom he has four children.

In 2007, bucking its own tradition to run its party leader as the presidential candidate, the Socialist Party chose Ms. Royal instead. After she lost to Mr. Sarkozy, Mr. Hollande handed the party reins to Martine Aubry, and he and Ms. Royal separated.

“Hollande has a sense of timing quite like Mitterrand: He does not rush into the events. Like Mitterrand, he knows there is a time for everything,” said Stephane Rozes, a political analyst and head of the consultancy firm Cap, which unofficially advises Mr. Hollande.

Analysts say timing has served him well in this presidential race. Had it not been for the Socialist front-runner Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest in New York on charges of attempted rape last year, Mr. Hollande might have still been waiting for the right moment. But in 2011, he won the party’s allegiance, thanks to his victory in the first-ever primaries held in France.

For Jean-Francois Cope, general secretary of Mr. Sarkozy’s UMP Party, Mr. Hollande lacks the political “courage” to make tough economic decisions as Europe grapples with a pervasive debt crisis.

Franck Louvrier, Mr. Sarkozy’s communications counselor, points to Mr. Hollande’s lack of international know-how and stature.

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