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Francois Hollande, the challenger

His party long regarded Francois Hollande as a wan regional politician. But a week before first-round voting, the socialist contender for the French presidency is the frontrunner in most opinion polls.

On previous occasions, the candidate put up a cautious front - but at a rally in a working-class suburb of Paris, just days ahead of the first round of voting Sunday in France's presidential polls, there's no stopping Francois Hollande.

"No one will stop us! Victory is ours on May 6," the presidential contender shouted in a hoarse voice to a huge crowd gathered at Chateau de Vincennes, waving red-and-white party flags in the cold wind, cheers going up at every appeal to unity and every verbal attack on the political opponent, incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Uncertainties remain

According to party sources, about 100,000 Socialist supporters rallied at Chateau de Vincennes, while just a few kilometres away, in the heart of Paris, President Sarkozy rallied his UMP party's faithful at Place de la Concorde before a sea of tricolore banners.

The rival rallies are no more than a footnote in the history of Hollande's election campaign - recent opinion polls have shown Hollande even stretching his lead over the incumbent in the crucial runoff in May. All the same, many supporters are highly irritated.

huge crowd at election campaign speech.

Hollande in Vincennes: building momentum

The enthusiasm people felt five years ago when Hollande's longtime partner and fellow socialist Segolene Royal was the candidate is lacking, says Aurelie Rida, perched in an information booth for the Socialist Party's youth organisation on the fringes of the rally. "Then, people dared to dream - today, at Hollande's rallies, people are well-behaved and restrained," Rida told DW but added neither the candidate nor his prosaic program are to blame for many supporters' aloof attitudes - the problem is the economic crisis.

Danger from the left

Francois Hollande is the common sense candidate chosen to beat the much-despised incumbent Sarkozy - but his supporters' hearts don't go out to the Socialist contender.

Hollande tends to flaunt his businesslike, down-to-earth personality; he cultivates his image as a regular citizen without an attitude, the exact opposite of President Sarkozy - according to a recent opinion poll, the president is the most unpopular president in France's recent history.

Despite the polls, the mood among Sarkozy followers is upbeat. And "against Sarkozy" doesn't necessarily mean "for Hollande," observers warn, at least not in first- round voting. Charismatic far-left "Front de Gauche" candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon also draws out tens-of-thousands of supporters, and is vying for third place in the vote.

Francois Hollande, Socialist Party candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, attends a campaign rally outside the Chateau de Vincennes, in Paris, April 15, 2012. Presidential rivals Nicolas Sarkozy and Hollande stage competing rallies in Paris Sunday in a last ditch battle for votes, just a week before elections. REUTERS/Charles Platiau (FRANCE - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS) // eingestellt von nis

A last-ditch bid for votes

Humble beginnings

Hollande, 57, made his way to the top thanks to diligence and perseverence. In 1981, when François Mitterrand became France's first and only Socialist President, the party sent young Hollande to the southwestern rural Correze constituency, the political backyard of former President Jacques Chirac.

At first, Hollande didn't stand a chance, but over the years, the parliamentarian won the people's respect and entered France's National Assembly in 1988, the same year as Nicolas Sarkozy.

From then on the politicians, who both hail from the ritzy Paris suburb Neuilly, regularly crossed paths.

Hollande is a seasoned local politician but he has never held a national government post or run a corporation. Any experience in leadership the party veteran may have stem from his tenure as socialist party leader from 1997 to 2008. His successor Martine Aubry said she took over a party in an "abject state."

Hollande was a second choice candidate after charismatic former finance minister and IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn saw his career destroyed last year by a series of allegations of sexual misconduct. And even after it was evident Strauss-Kahn was no longer in the race, leading party members dismissed a Hollande candidacy as "a joke."

A comment by Arnaud Montebourg is as unflattering: five years ago, when Segolene Royal entered the presidential race as the party's candidate, the hardline socialist told French television that Royal had only one weak point: her partner.

Royal, the mother of Hollande's four children but no longer the politician's life partner, has also been dismissive: "Can the French name even one thing he has created in his 30 years on the political stage?" she asked.

Vague election platform

Former critics within the party are meanwhile eyeing possible appointments in the event of an election victory, although the candidate has kept a low profile concerning a shadow cabinet that would indicate his political route.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy at rallye

Nicolas Sarkozy, the unpopular incumbent

His program "60 measures for France" is vague. It includes re-opening talks on the European fiscal compact - an EU accord on debt and deficit control that German Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed through against many objections - and has raised eyebrows in Berlin and other capitals.

Domestically, Hollande is running on a traditional Socialist platform, pledging to create 60,000 new jobs for teachers, partially revoke a pension reform and boost taxes on the wealthy. In view of the desolate financial situation and the pressure on the financial markets, observers expect Hollande will have to quickly find an answer to an issue that is left largely open in his election program: how to cut government spending.

Too many pledges?

These prospects are most likely the reason why many leftists don't long for a possible victory as fervently as supporters did 30 years ago, when Francois Mitterrand won the presidency and the party planned to turn the entire country inside out. The contrast becomes visible in pictures from Mitterrand's election victory, shown on large screens at Sunday's rally in Vincennes. Rida of the Young Socialists is concerned. "We've promised the French a lot," she says. "If we can't keep those promises, the conservatives will rule for the next 30 years."

Francois Hollande's staunch followers cheered as the candidate left the stage in Vincennes after 50 minutes, the crowd already thinning.

A movie quote comes to mind. "I am the last great President," a character named 'the president' says in the 2005 film The last Mitterrand (Le Promeneur du Champ de Mars). "When I am gone, there will be only financiers and accountants."

Author: Andreas Noll / db
Editor: Joanna Impey

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