PARIS, France — Even when the conversation isn't about Nicolas Sarkozy, people still end up talking about Nicolas Sarkozy.
After five years under the omnipresent, love-him-or-hate-him president, that's just a fact of French political life.
So when supporters of François Hollande, the Socialist Party challenger in the presidential election to be held this spring, are asked to define their candidate, they quickly bring up the incumbent.
"Hollande will be a president who's close to the people and brings dignity back to the office, and that's something we're all eager for after the five years we've just had," says Fatima Lalem, a Socialist Party member and deputy to the mayor of Paris.
"Hollande has shown that he can work with everyone, make room for his opponents," echoes Yannick Trigance, who's advised Hollande on education for the past decade.
"But look at Sarkozy, he divides everyone, he pits the French against one another."
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Rather than bemoan the vast shadow of his opponent, François Hollande embraces it. Everything Nicolas Sarkozy is, he promises not to be.
Sarkozy is "the bling-bling president," who celebrated his election in 2007 at a star-studded, posh restaurant on the Champs-Elysees. He vacationed on the yacht of a wealthy business tycoon.
Hollande intends to be "the normal president.” As a candidate, he still rides his scooter to meetings around Paris. Normalcy, he bets, is just what the French want.
Monsieur Nice Guy
If the differences are many between the two frontrunners for the election to be held April 22 and May 6, the main and obvious one is indeed personality.
Sarkozy enthralled crowds in 2007 because he was a man of action, promising reforms and change in a stale political scene and a static country.
But critics now say he makes brash decisions, ignores dissenting voices and is veering to the far right on immigration. His brazen style and showy friendships with the wealthy eventually turned off many voters. Even his work on the euro crisis, which lends him credibility among some voters, hasn't helped much. His approval rate now hovers around 35 percent.
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"That is the key to Hollande's success because the election is turning into a sort of referendum for or against Nicolas Sarkozy," said Éric Dupin, a journalist and keen political observer who will publish a book on the campaign this May. "François Hollande is the one who appears not only as his main opponent politically, but also as his complete opposite psychologically."
Hollande takes time to make up his mind. He has a reputation as a listener and a man of compromise, who spends his weekends among the people in the rural constituency he has long represented in parliament.
He’s a nice guy.
"He never attacks people, doesn't participate in controversies, isn't aggressive, and I think that's why the French like him," said his adviser, Yannick Trigance.
But that's also why some won't vote for him.
Nice, critics say, won't cut it when negotiating on the European debt crisis or Iran's nuclear program. "The debate is whether in international dealings he'll be able to make the decisions, because if he won't, others will," Dupin said. "That's the big question mark on a Hollande presidency."
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None put it so bluntly as his opponents in the Socialist primary this fall. "Mr. Joke," they called him. A representative of the "soft left," "marshmallow," "strawberry," — from the French parable about the unfortunate fate of a wild strawberry living among elephants — and "pedal-boat captain.”
The one that stuck: "Flanby" — a favorite dessert of French children, a jellied custard that wobbles on the plate and can be gobbled whole without chewing. With friends like these ....
Waiting for his moment
For all his lack of charisma, François Hollande won France's first-ever primary with close to 3 million votes. He now polls around 30 percent for the first round, against about 25 for Sarkozy. A run-off between the two, if held today, would go 58-42 for Hollande, according to the most recent survey.
"Because it stands in contrast to Sarkozy, even this supposed weakness isn't much of a liability," Dupin said. And of course, being nice doesn't preclude ambition.
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Born in 1954, his father a conservative doctor and his mother a liberal social worker, François Hollande is a typical product of France's elitist education. He managed to graduate from all three of the country's most prestigious liberal arts schools before entering public service in 1981.
Although a member of parliament and the Socialist Party chairman from 1997 to 2008, his national ambitions were always just out of reach. He never held executive office — another black spot on his candidacy. He considered running for president in 2007, but gave up the spotlight to Ségolène Royal, his former partner and the mother of his four children. It wasn't "his moment," he has said.
This year is, he is convinced. The erstwhile Socialist frontrunner Dominique Strauss-Kahn was brought down by his own demons in a New York hotel room and Hollande suddenly became the candidate most likely to attract moderates away from Sarkozy.
His platform has focused on youth and education, and his strong belief in redistribution — he just proposed a 75 percent marginal tax rate for income over a million euros — is classic French left wing. But to show he understands the times, Hollande also promised to make every new expense revenue-neutral. To make good for the cameras, he lost 30 pounds and traded his usual goofy repartee for more gravitas.
"He doesn't need to run a very dynamic, very aggressive campaign," Dupin said. "He can just sit back and take advantage of Nicolas Sarkozy's senseless campaign strategy."
"For my part, I've written it many times, I think Nicolas Sarkozy is doomed.”