PARIS (Reuters) - Francois Hollande, the man who wants to be France’s “Mr Normal” president, has stopped going to work by scooter but tells voters he will still take the train and do the family shopping once elected - at least, he jokes, “if the fridge is empty”.
The 57-year-old Socialist has spent more than a year on the campaign trail, building his stature as a statesman, finetuning his tax-and-spend manifesto, and promising to do away with the brash style that earned Nicolas Sarkozy the nickname “president bling bling”.
In a race marked more by Sarkozy fatigue than Hollande fervor, his few concessions to fashion were to trade his jam-jar spectacles for designer glasses and go on a strict diet that deprived him of chocolate cake and of his double chin.
His partner Valerie Trierweiler also wants to stick to a simple life. She relishes the already too-rare moments when the two share dinner on the sofa in front of the television, even if, she says, he tends to use too much butter in his cooking.
She says she will happily play “second fiddle as first lady” but she wants to remain a working mum, in part to pay for the upkeep of three teenage sons that the twice-divorced journalist had before moving in with Hollande.
Hollande previously spent a quarter of a century and had four children with Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate for president who lost to Sarkozy in 2007. Royal announced her split with him weeks after her poll defeat.
Hollande, born in the middle-sized northwestern city of Rouen, where he attended a private Catholic school, never married Royal and is not married to Trierweiler, which may cause minor protocol headaches when it comes to state visits.
Economically, Hollande says there is no reason to subject France to drastic Greek-style austerity and he will try to get the rest of Europe, starting with German leader Angela Merkel, to commit in tandem to pro-growth strategies.
He has never held a ministerial post during 30 years in politics, knows few world leaders personally, and until recently was perhaps better known abroad as Royal’s partner.
However, Hollande has become something of an international curiosity since he dared to challenge what he branded a recipe for “endless austerity” driven by Berlin.
His platform relies on tax rises, mainly on the rich and companies, to fund spending on schools, state-aided job creation and letting those who started work at 18 retire at 60, while simultaneously working towards balancing the budget by 2017.
He is no radical leftist, despite vowing to slap a 75 percent rate of income tax on annual earnings above 1 million euros ($1.31 million). That will hurt some 3,000 people but is more symbolic than effective in terms of revenue.
Beyond the fact that Sarkozy is an easy target after years of economic crisis, Hollande’s strongest selling point may be that he bends with the wind but has never broken. One of his nicknames is “marsh reed” (“roseau” in French).
Less charitably, Socialists dubbed him “Flanby”, the brand name of a wobbly egg-custard dessert.
Hollande surprised many in a near three-hour TV duel with Sarkozy last week by more than holding his own against the conservative president, a formidable debater whose reputation for bulldozing his opponents off the stage is legend.
Hollande has made the most of his image as an affable, contagiously witty politician at a time when Sarkozy’s hard-hitting energy has lost its magic.
The Socialist says symbols matter and has promised to cut presidential and ministerial salaries by 30 percent as his first act to show the ruling elite can tighten its belt in tough times.
He has promised the head of state will no longer enjoy legal immunity for suspected offences preceding his election, unlike the blanket protection that exists now.
Hollande even says he would like to travel by train rather than presidential jet when possible, even if his train would have to be tailed by a jet in any case for security reasons.
Hollande’s mother, a social worker who was very close to him and died in 2009, adored France’s last left-wing president, Francois Mitterrand. His father, an eye and ear doctor, dabbled in far-right politics in the 1960s, opposing France’s pullout from Algeria.
Trierweiler, interviewed by women‘s’ magazine Femme Actuelle days before Sunday’s ballot, confided that one of his quirks in domestic life is that he never closes the door behind him.
She even managed to turn that to his advantage, saying: “He never closes the door to anyone, as he has nothing to hide.” ($1 = 0.7625 euros)
Reporting By Brian Love; Editing by Paul Taylor