At first, the tall, lanky ex-minister and former Parliament deputy drew little interest. He had no money, no campaign headquarters and was the last of the major candidates to start campaigning. After back-to-back seven-year terms of Mitterrand, who died in January 1996, France seemed weary of socialism and the Socialists.
As conservative rivals Jacques Chirac and Edouard Balladur waged a fratricidal feud on the right, Jospin--then an uneasy TV presence with little if any charisma--avoided catchy promises and spoke critically of Mitterrand's legacy, especially in combating unemployment and corruption. He had a "right to take stock" of his former boss, he said, and he used it.
On the first round, Jospin surprised even his own backers by emerging as front-runner. Chirac, candidate of the unified right, defeated Jospin in the runoff, but the loser had become a truly national figure.
"I got 14 million votes," he would often marvel out loud.
From then on, Jospin was effective head of France's political opposition. On Monday, the day after his party and its allies triumphed at the polls, Chirac appointed Jospin head of France's next government.
Jospin, who has two children from a previous marriage, is married to the Socialist militant and philosopher Sylviane Agancinski, 50, a specialist on Kierkegaard. She has defended the right of a political leader's wife to a career of her own, and last June issued a public call for gender parity in politics, which Jospin supported.