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Sarkozy’s Challenger: François Hollande Steps Up After Strauss-Kahn’s Fall

The winner of the Socialist party primary Sunday will face Nicolas Sarkozy for the French presidency in the 2012 election. Hollande is not only a DSK rival, but also the former companion of Ségolène Royal, who lost to Sarkozy in 2007.

Article illustrative image Partner logo Socialist Party candidate Franois Hollande

PARIS - A year ago, he was last in all the major polls – behind Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Socialist party chief Martine Aubry. So indeed we can say that François Hollande, from the central French department of Corrèze, had come a long way when, on Sunday night, he was elected as the Socialist Party’s candidate for the French presidency.

His presidential ambitions go back quite a ways, and he was openly considering a run in the 2007 elections. He thought he could beat the top Socialist Party rivals: Laurent Fabius, an enemy; Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose weaknesses he sensed; even Lionel Jospin, who was looking to return to politics after his crushing defeat in 2002. As then leader of the party, Hollande let internal squabbling run its course, believing that institutional legitimacy would propel him forward for the end game.

He was wrong. His plans were derailed by his own partner and mother of his children, the popular Ségolène Royal, who threw her hat into the electoral ring. Politics became entangled with their private life (their relationship was on the skids, and they have since separated). A movement was created in Royal’s favor, and she ultimately became the Socialist Party candidate opposite the center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) candidate Nicolas Sarkozy.

In 2008, at the end of the Reims Congress at which Martine Aubry took over the party’s leadership, Hollande was at a low point. Reviled by the Socialists, held responsible for the party’s chaos, an exhausted Hollande ended his 11-month stint as the party’s first secretary. Looking back over his tenure, his victories in regional elections in 2004 tended to be overlooked: focus was on the two presidential elections lost under his leadership (Jospin in 2002, Royal in 2007).

But now, at 57, it’s his turn -- and he never doubted that turn would come. Hollande is one of those politicians who believe they are destined for certain roles, in this case a presidential one. Now that he’s in a position to achieve it, it almost comes as a surprise.

Conflict averse

François Hollande doesn’t tend to get angry with people. He never did. “He detests conflict, it’s not in his nature. When you have a discussion with him, it always goes very well. He generally agrees with you at the time, although he may not later,” says Henri Emmanuelli, a Socialist party politician.

And Hollande doesn’t deny it. On the contrary, he claims the trait helped him keep the party united during some of its toughest times, when it was in danger of exploding – such as after Jospin’s defeat in 2002 in the first-round of presidential voting by far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, or after the “no” vote on the referendum on the European Constitution, which his party had supported. But nobody was remembering any of that on the night of the Reims Congress.

After Reims, Hollande disappeared from the radar for awhile before reemerging in late June 2009. In Lorient, he laid out the building blocks of his program – three “pacts,” one educational, one fiscal, and one productive. He made little impact. The potshots fellow Socialists Martine Aubry and Ségolène Royal were taking at each other, and a silent Dominique Strauss-Kahn looming in the background, captured all the attention.

But all the while a “presidentialization” operation was taking place in the Hollande camp, which includes the candidate avoiding the little jokes he used to enjoy, while polishing up his image: he has lost weight, changed the style of his glasses, and is dressing more elegantly.

Who, just as little as a year ago, would have thought he could make it this far? In late June 2010, he was still placing last in the polls. Dominique Strauss-Kahn was the one everyone was sure would carry the day if he ran. But even Martine Aubry and Ségolène Royal looked to be better placed. “The objective is to come in third,” was the cautiously optimistic word from the Hollande camp.

But despite his air of mildness, Hollande is unshakable. When the Strauss-Kahn scandal propelled him to first place in the polls last May, he was ready. All he needed to do from that point on was manage his advance, which he did steadfastly all through the primary by hammering home his plans for fiscal reform and a new generational contract on the labor market.

Read the original article in French

Photo - LCP - Assemblée Nationale

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