How do you lead a party out of the political wilderness and back to power against a charismatic incumbent? In France, the answer may be a short, bespectacled nerd famous for his lack of star power. François Hollande is the presidential nominee for the centre-left Socialist party, which used to dominate the presidency but has been out of power since François Mitterrand’s defeat in 1995. With the increasing unpopularity of centre-right President Nicolas Sarkozy, and a strong showing in the 2011 Senate elections, the Socialists see the upcoming April vote as their best hope to regain the top job. And they’re doing it with a guy nicknamed “Mr. Normal.”
Hollande might seem, at first glance, like the last person you’d pick to upset an international man of mystery like Sarkozy. Though he was Socialist party secretary for 11 years, he’s the type of functionary who always steps aside for more interesting people. In 2007, he lost the presidential nomination to Ségolène Royal, his partner at the time and the mother of his four children. This time around, the Socialists were prepared to pick the more glamorous Dominique Strauss-Kahn, but sex allegations against him proved too much for even the French.
With Strauss-Kahn unavailable, Hollande got the nomination almost by default, even though, as Foreign Policy’s Eric Pape put it, other politicians have tagged him as “spineless, too conciliatory, and the embodiment of the ‘mushy left’—and that’s just the commentary from members of his own party.” Things are no better for him on TV: On Les Guignols, a popular French show with marionettes, Hollande is portrayed as a pimply-faced nerd with a bad toupée and a tendency to giggle at inappropriate times. His image in France is comparable to that of Stéphane Dion in Canada—a plodding team player, not a winner.
And yet Hollande, with his uninspiring speeches about nuts-and-bolts domestic policy, leads Sarkozy by six points in the most recent poll. It may help that nerdy theories about taxation have never been more popular than they are now: with resentment of the rich at an all-time high, Hollande’s vow to raise taxes on high earners and profits, and to regulate banks, sound like fiery populism in an era when most European governments have become obsessed with budget-balancing.
Still, no one can win an election on policy alone, so Hollande has been trying to glamorize his image a little since his 2007 defeat. According to Le Figaro, he “changed his style of glasses and wore more elegant clothes,” and he’s lost 33 lb., leading to Les Guignols sketches about him wasting away from hunger. And though he’ll never make the gossip columns as frequently as Sarkozy or Carla Bruni, he has had a more tabloid-friendly private life in the last few years: he and Royal split up after her presidential defeat, amidst allegations that he’d had an affair with a journalist. When Hollande made a film recently listing all the great socialist politicians who came before him, he didn’t mention Royal, leading her to fume that she was being “erased from history” by her ex-lover. Proving that a winning politician can be nice and nerdy, as long as he inspires at least some juicy gossip.