PARIS (Reuters) - Francois Hollande, who topped the first round of a presidential election on Sunday, promises to spare France harsh, Greek-style austerity and to refocus Europe on economic growth if he becomes the first Socialist president since Francois Mitterrand.
Unlike Mitterrand, the 57-year-old who has never held ministerial office says he has no intention of launching a public spending blitz that was once synonymous with left-wing rule, pledging instead to balance state finances while raising taxes to finance his spending priorities.
Unlike Mitterrand, whose victory in 1981 seemed to many to be nothing short of a revolution, with the state nationalizing banks and major corporations, Hollande has been anxious to reassure investors, even while talking up policies such as a 75 percent tax rate for millionaires that appeal to the hard left.
“My final duty, and I know I’m being watched from beyond our borders, is to put Europe back on the path of economic growth and employment,” Hollande said on Sunday after publication of preliminary results from round one, maintaining him as favorite in a May 6 runoff versus conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.
He received the news 500 km (300 miles) south of Paris, at Tulle in the rural district of Correze where, as leader of the local government, he has downgraded the cars used on official business and scrapped free school buses to combat debt, but also invested in free iPads for secondary school students.
In a contest that included a Communist-backed hard-leftist, two Trotskyists and high-scoring hard-right leader Marine Le Pen - who finished a strong third - Hollande stuck resolutely to a mainstream left-of-centre manifesto, well short of the spending binge and wave of nationalizations Mitterrand launched in 1981.
“This is a vote of confidence in the project I have presented, to restore justice to our country, bring the world of finance to heel, restore growth and employment, reduce our debt, protect our industry, promote republican values and prepare the future, notably in energy transition,” said Hollande.
“Tonight I am the one who is best placed to become the next president.”
Hollande’s battle plan commits France to eliminating its state deficit by 2017 - a year later than Sarkozy’s - while raising taxes, primarily on the rich, to fund priority spending programs in areas like schooling and state-aided employment scheme.
His strategy falls short of the mark for some economists, who argue that deep public spending cuts and a rollback of the state are needed to tackle high national debt, revive the economy and make France more internationally competitive.
But Hollande contends that draconian Greek-style austerity, without a parallel pro-growth plan, would be self-defeating by reducing economic activity and hence state revenues, and so defeating the deficit reduction it was meant to achieve.
Beyond economic policies that are central to this election, Hollande’s agenda is modern centre-left: he would legalize gay marriage, adoption by same-sex couples and euthanasia under strict conditions. He has said he has no intention of marrying Valerie Trierweiler - just as he never married his previous partner, Segolene Royal, the mother of his four children and the losing Socialist candidate in the 2007 presidential election.
Hollande has billed himself as the “Mr Normal” the country needs after five years of at times flashy, narcissistic leadership that earned his conservative rival, incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, the nickname “President Bling Bling”.
The Socialist party leader used to go to work by scooter until the demands of a near year-long election campaign and security requirements got the better of his modest mode of transport.
Hollande was best known abroad until recently as the partner of Royal, from whom he separated after her unsuccessful campaign against Sarkozy five years ago. His current partner Trierweiler is a journalist who says she will keep working if Hollande wins - to support her three children from a previous marriage.
Hollande’s wit can be sharp. Even Bernadette Chirac, one of his conservative opponents on the Correze district council and wife of conservative former president Jacques Chirac, once conceded: “He is very funny. He knows how to work a crowd, a market, a fair, a local council.”
His natural joviality has taken a backseat without vanishing as he seeks to convey the gravitas of a statesman and overcome what Sarkozy has tried to exploit as a weakness - his lack of high political office.
Never a minister, he had until last year when the spectacular fall from grace of Socialist grandee Dominique Strauss-Kahn thrust Hollande into the frontrunner’s spot among his fellow Socialists, devoted his political life to local government and serving in internal party functions.
He held the fractious party together as first secretary for 10 turbulent years from 1997 to 2007 after working in the shadows in Mitterrand’s presidential office.
Having put himself forward for last year’s Socialist primary, few thought much of his prospects until Strauss-Kahn, then head of the IMF, was accused of rape in a New York hotel. Though charges were dropped, Hollande had become the candidate.
Critics say he is inexperienced, bland and indecisive. Wags nicknamed him “Flanby” after a brand of wobbly caramel pudding. Backers say his strength is that he is a consensus-builder who pursues reform by consent.
Hollande slimmed down and sharpened his looks for the election with a crash diet that deprived him of one of his great loves, chocolate cake. The jam-jar spectacles of past years were ditched in favor of fashionable sharp-edged glasses.
Born on August 12, 1954 in the northwestern city of Rouen into a middle-class family, Hollande, son of a doctor father and social worker mother, told family and friends from a young age that he wanted to be president one day.
After moving to the Paris region in 1968, he attended the top-rank HEC business school and graduated at the end of the 1970s from the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, the civil service academy that churns out most of the political elite.
From there, he started a political career as a back-office aide to Mitterrand in 1981, along with Royal.
He says he will cut the presidential salary by 30 percent if elected. Another thing he says he will do immediately if he wins is put in a call to share the news with his ageing father, who spent some time campaigning for the far-right in the 1960s, angry that France was letting go of then colony Algeria.
Editing by Alastair Macdonald