Sunday, May 6, 2012

In French Race, the Tortoise Sets His Own Pace


May 5, 2012

In French Race, the Tortoise Sets His Own Pace


PARISFrançois Hollande, the 57-year-old favored to be elected narrowly on Sunday as France’s president, is no revolutionary. He likes to talk of “harmony” and “pragmatism” and often quotes the poet and politician Aimé Césaire about “lucid hope.”

With a father on the far right and a social-worker mother, Mr. Hollande grew up on the edge of the 1968 protests that nearly overthrew the French government. They shocked him, but also politicized him, he said in a recent interview, making him understand that change was possible even in the France of Charles de Gaulle.

“I’ve never been a revolutionary, I never thought that the street, the social movement, could overthrow the established order,” Mr. Hollande said. “I have always thought like a Socialist, a social democrat — like a democrat, also. What we had to change, we must first convince the people themselves.”

One of his closest friends, Jean-Maurice Ripert, a diplomat, said that Mr. Hollande “is someone serious, even obstinate, and we knew you had to fight for things in the long term.”

The one and only Socialist president of France, François Mitterrand, left office 17 years ago. Yet Mr. Hollande appears to be on the cusp of winning what can seem like a lifelong battle, having told friends at age 15 that he expected to become president.

Still, he can seem a most unlikely heir to the republican throne of de Gaulle or Mr. Hollande’s model, Mr. Mitterrand, whose gestures he channels. Charming and convivial, Mr. Hollande has always been a man of the second rank, an adviser to more compelling and powerful figures.

A Socialist rival, Laurent Fabius, once compared him to a “fraise des bois,” a fragile woodland strawberry, and said he was a man best suited, like a waiter, to “pass the dishes.” There have been many insults, all suggesting that Mr. Hollande, who liked his cheese and chocolate, was “soft,” without convictions or backbone.

But he has persevered, overcoming numerous slights and humiliations, transforming himself in ways that have surprised many, including the current president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

“I didn’t come to the first rank either by chance or by obsession,” Mr. Hollande said in the interview. “I got there because I put myself in this situation, and because I deserved it.”

If the fables of Jean de La Fontaine are among France’s greatest cultural treasures, forming the minds of countless children, Mr. Hollande is a fine example of the virtues of the tortoise, not the hare; the ant, not the grasshopper. He has shown diligence, patience and quiet calculation in rising to lead a Socialist Party desperate to win but riven by rivalries and the scandal surrounding a putative candidate, Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

After ceding the nomination in 2007 to Ségolène Royal, his partner at the time, who lost badly to Mr. Sarkozy, Mr. Hollande prepared to run against Mr. Strauss-Kahn, once considered a shoo-in, and then against Mr. Sarkozy. Mr. Hollande split with Ms. Royal, the mother of their four children, and says he has found happiness with a journalist, Valérie Trierweiler, now 47, a mother of three, who divorced her husband, an editor, after an affair that Mr. Hollande’s biographer, Serge Raffy, said began in 2005.

Mr. Hollande went on a tough diet, hardened his positions and his character, bought stylish eyeglasses and mapped out a campaign of moderate change coupled with reassuring rhetoric. He has stayed the course in his yearlong campaign, rarely inspiring passion, but accumulating credibility and a competitive edge.

Both were on display in his first major campaign speech in mid-January, which won plaudits even on the right. “I am ready,” he said then, but had to prove it. His toughness was on display again in the single televised debate last week, a showdown with Mr. Sarkozy.

Both men were aggressive and well prepared, but Mr. Hollande gave no quarter. As if to disprove the accusation that he was too soft, he was sometimes rude, often interrupting Mr. Sarkozy and throwing him off stride.

Even Alain Minc, one of Mr. Sarkozy’s closest friends and advisers, said that Mr. Hollande had done well. “I think we all underestimated this guy,” Mr. Minc told Reuters. “He’s shown quite an uncommon strength of spirit this year. The François Hollande we are seeing today is different from the one we all knew. We took him for something other than he is. Either we were wrong or he has changed.”

Mr. Sarkozy said afterward, “Don’t think that I felt Mr. Hollande was just gentle and kind.”

Born in Rouen, Mr. Hollande’s father, Georges, a doctor, was an angry, distant man who was faithful to Marshal Philippe Pétain, the chief of the Vichy state, disliked de Gaulle and despised what he called “the Resistants of the last hour.” He supported the far-right National Front.

In his campaign book, “Changer de destin,” Mr. Hollande says that his father’s ideas, “contrary to mine,” forged his politics. “Going against someone you love undoubtedly educates you,” he wrote, and despite everything he has kept his ties to his father.

His mother, Nicole Tribert, was described as warm and giving. Her politics leaned left, and her interest in Mr. Mitterrand piqued Mr. Hollande’s interest. François and his older brother, Philippe, grew up modestly, and Philippe took 1968 to heart, becoming a jazz musician. Their father, however, saw the riots of 1968 as a precursor to a Soviet invasion, and suddenly moved the family to Neuilly-sur-Seine, the wealthy Paris suburb where Mr. Sarkozy also grew up.

Mr. Hollande was an excellent student, attending some of France’s finest schools — the law faculty of the University of Paris, then the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), then the HEC Paris business school, and then the holy grail — L’ École Nationale d’Administration, which trains France’s political and business elite of the right and the left.

He soon went into professional politics, becoming an aide to Mr. Mitterrand (while Ms. Royal was a junior minister), growing close to his other idol, Jacques Delors, a former president of the European Commission, and serving as spokesman for Lionel Jospin, then prime minister. Never a minister, Mr. Hollande struggled to hold on to a parliamentary seat he first won in 1988 in rural Corrèze, the fief of Mr. Chirac, who once suggested that Mr. Hollande was “less well known than Mitterrand’s Labrador.” He lost the seat in 1993, but persevered once more, winning it back in 1997 and becoming president of the regional council, while running the Socialist Party from 1997 to 2008.

In Saturday’s Le Monde, Mr. Hollande said that socialism had progressed beyond the revolutionary aspirations of the 19th century. “The left should embody grand hopes, but it must not reduce itself to grand moments,” he said. “I want to initiate a transformation of society in the long term.”

His first task, however, should he win, is “to be the president of the exit from crisis,” he said. “Progress is no longer an ideology, but it remains a fertile idea. I am a militant of progress.”

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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