Anti-Sarkozy feeling not yet enough to empower Hollande


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The Independent Online

François Hollande has travelled to Lorraine to make a point: he is a man who keeps his promises; President Nicolas Sarkozy is a man who breaks them.

The Socialist front-runner for this year's presidential election in April and May is in the depressed steel town of Gandrange, scene of one of the best remembered porkies of the Sarkozy years.

In February 2008, President Sarkozy visited Gandrange when a large, local steel plant was threatened with closure. "I will find a solution and I will come back," Mr Sarkozy promised. He did neither.

In the week after France lost its AAA credit rating, Gandrange is the perfect symbol of France's economic sorrow and its disenchantment with Sarkozy. Before he was elected in 2007, he promised to "pluck growth with my teeth". Five years later, French unemployment is at 9.7 per cent, an 11-year high.

Mr Hollande, 57, the poll favourite to become the next President on 6 May, has come to Lorraine in eastern France to promise to do better.

The Gandrange visit is also emblematic of his enigmatic and low-key campaign. Part of him remains a plump, slightly dishevelled man; a respected, likeable, unexciting member of the centre-left elite in France for two decades.

The rest of him is slender, smartly dressed and over-coached.

"I'll tell you what irritates me about him," said Vincent Spataro, 65, a Socialist supporter who joined the small welcoming crowd in Gandrange. "It is when he tries to imitate (the late President) François Mitterrand, with all those exaggerated gesticulations. He should be calmer. He should be himself."

The Socialist candidate spoke in Gandrange of "rebuilding confidence" and of "reigniting hope". The Sarkozy camp accuse Mr Hollande of having no clear or detailed proposals. In some ways, he has too many. On his Lorraine trip he spoke of new policies for state and regional industrial investment and tax-breaks to companies which hire apprentices while keeping older workers in a job. Asked to promise a new law to ban the closure of profit-making factories, he promised to "consider whether such legislation is feasible".

Such language falls short of the shining promise conjured up by words like "hope" and "confidence" and "dream". In a time of big questions, Mr Hollande offers small answers. Between the likeable policy-wonk and the new statesman who wants to rouse a wounded nation, there appears to be a missing link or void. Nine weeks from the first round of voting on 22 April, Mr Hollande has yet to find a compelling voice or "narrative".

No matter, say his aides. He will be proclaiming his vision at his first large campaign rally at Le Bourget, just north of Paris, this Sunday.

While Hollande tops every opinion poll, February is when voting intentions shift radically or solidify.

"The mood on the street is strongly anti-Sarko but not yet pro-Hollande. We have a lot of work to do," said one Hollande activist.