‘Mon­sieur Nor­mal’ is no­ticed

So­cial­ist pushes in­cum­bent Sarkozy in polls of pres­i­den­tial race

The Washington Times Daily - - World - BY KARINE G. BARZE­GAR

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 south­cen­tral 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 the 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.

French Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Sarkozy has surged in re­cent polls pre­dict­ing first-round vot­ing re­sults. But the polls see his ri­val, So­cial­ist Fran­cois Hol­lande, win­ning a runoff in May.

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