Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande waves to the audience at the… (Christophe Ena, AFP/Getty…)
PARIS — Under the big top of Paris' Cirque d'Hiver, where in winter trapeze artists perform "death-defying" feats, big cats terrify and clowns trip and tumble, a middle-aged man who looks like a bank manager is waiting in the wings.
On stage is the warm-up act, an earnest 94-year-old writer, whose sincerity has damped the excitement that the preceding break dancers and rappers had whipped up. Outside, circus usherettes in red-and-gold majorette jackets lounge around looking bored.
But as the man in the gray suit and spectacles finally strides into the ring, the crowd goes wild. Ringside VIPs and youngsters in the cheap seats leap to their feet: "Francois president ... Francois president ... Francois president!" comes the mesmerizing chant.
Ladies and gentlemen, we bring you Francois Hollande, the man who, if the polls are correct, will be the next president of France.
The Socialist Party candidate, who once told a magazine that he preferred being nice, "because in the films, the bad guys always lose," is running neck and neck in Sunday's presidential election with incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy (whose name isn't particularly synonymous with the word "nice").
But in the expected second round two weeks later, polls give Hollande a lead of between 10 and 14 percentage points, making him poised to become only the second Socialist leader in France's history.
Just as Sarkozy has earned the nickname "President Bling-Bling," the 57-year-old Hollande is called "Monsieur Normal" and criticized for being worthy but bland, earnest but not very exciting, more manager than visionary.
On a continent shaken by economic turmoil, however, Europeans have been reaching for security blankets. Witness the ouster of flamboyant Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his technocrat replacement, Mario Monti.
In this grim economic climate, it seems like a good bet to hone the image of an ordinary man representing the ordinary citizen. Hollande's leitmotif is the call for social equality, for "fairness," for controlling financial speculation, regulating banks and taxing the rich and big, profitable companies.
If he wins in the second round May 6, Hollande is set to put the cat among the European pigeons. He has pledged to renegotiate the deal Sarkozy struck with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to rein in budget deficits in European Union countries. He supports encouraging growth instead of austerity programs. He has proposed a 75% tax rate on personal earnings over $1.3 million a year.
"We're being upfront, saying, 'If you're a rich individual or a rich company, yes, you're going to pay more,' " Socialist spokesman Benoit Hamon said.
Hollande is a career politician, but has never held a ministerial post and is virtually unknown outside France. He may never even have gotten a shot at becoming president ifDominique Strauss-Kahn, the Socialist Party's first choice, hadn't been arrested in New York nearly a year ago after being accused of sexually assaulting a hotel maid.
Most people, even many of his critics, seem to agree that Hollande is a personable chap, a nice guy, Mr. Ordinary. The attacks leveled against him have been pretty feeble: He doesn't look like a president, he isn't a showman, he has no charisma, he's … well, he's a man in a gray suit who's "normal."
Hollande's one bit of spiciness, if it can be called that, is his personal life. In 2007, he swallowed his own ambition and stepped aside for Segolene Royal, the mother of his four children, to run as the Socialist presidential candidate, but was accused of being less than enthusiastic in his public support of her. After she lost to Sarkozy, it was revealed that their relationship was already foundering. His partner today is Valerie Trierweiler, a glamorous former journalist with the glossy news magazine Paris Match.
Sarkozy would have been at home in the Cirque d'Hiver. Hollande simply looked out of place. But he laughs off the critics, saying charisma comes with becoming president. "When you're elected, you embody France. That changes everything."
Before Strauss-Kahn's spectacular fall, Hollande, who had given up the party leadership, was in a political wilderness. Then he lost weight, smartened up his suits and won the party primaries.
Opponents who used to deride him as Monsieur Flanby (after a wobbly French pudding), as much for his portliness as the perceived flabbiness of his political opinions, dropped the nickname as Hollande fleshed out his program, assumed more gravitas and showed he had a serious chance of becoming president. The criticism that he is a political lightweight, however, has stuck.
A commentator in the right-of-center Le Figaro newspaper compared Hollande's egalitarian crusade to that of Saint-Just, the military and political leader during the French Revolution whose zeal and energy led him to be dubbed the "Angel of Death."