He's plodding, unexciting and cautious – but that's why France's favourite Socialist can oust Sarkozy

Can François Hollande bridge the gap between his 'new French dream' and his clunky policy proposals? John Lichfield joins him on the campaign trail in Gandrange
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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. Outside Gandrange town hall, a modest crowd is gathered, consisting of about one third local people and two thirds television crews and journalists.

"We can't see you François," a local shouts from behind the scrum of cameras and sound booms. "Where are you?"

A hand emerges from the scrum and waves satirically. It is the Socialist candidate's hand. "I'm in here somewhere," Mr Hollande seems to be saying.

In February 2008, just after his wedding to Carla Bruni, 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 double symbol of France's economic sorrow and its disenchantment with President Sarkozy. Before he was elected in 2007, Mr Sarkozy promised to "pluck growth with my teeth". He promised to make the French "work more and earn more". Five years later, French unemployment is at 9.7 per cent, the highest for 11 years. The accumulated French state debt has grown by €630bn, of which €100bn can be blamed on the post-2008 global crisis.

Mr Hollande, 57, the poll favourite to become the next President of the Republic on 6 May, has come to Lorraine in eastern France to promise to do better. Or perhaps not to promise exactly. Promise is a word that the thoughtful, cautious, likeable, plodding Socialist candidate uses sparingly.

The Gandrange visit is also emblematic of Mr Hollande's enigmatic and low-key campaign. The waving hand above the TV scrum symbolises Mr Hollande's sense of humour. It also symbolises his failure to connect viscerally with ordinary people. "Somewhere lost in my campaign is the real me," Mr Hollande seems to be saying.

In a series of whistle-stops in Lorraine this week, the Socialist candidate generated polite applause but little enthusiasm. Part of him remains the plump, slightly dishevelled François Hollande, who has been a respected, likeable, unexciting member of the centre-left elite in France for two decades. Part of him is a slender, smartly dressed and over-coached new Hollande.

"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". He wrote earlier this month of his mission to "rekindle the magic of the French dream".

Mr Hollande is accused by the Sarkozy camp of having no clear or detailed proposals. In some ways, he has too many proposals (although the detail tends to shift around a little). 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. He spoke of his plan to hire 60,000 new front-line teachers over five years, which may, or may not, be new posts.

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. The campaign proper has not started. President Sarkozy has not yet officially declared his candidature. Mr Hollande, they say, will be proclaiming his vision at his first large campaign rally at Le Bourget, just north of Paris, this Sunday.

Other Hollande supporters are nervous. Although he still tops every opinion poll, February is typically the month in which French presidential voting intentions shift radically or solidify. "In 2002 and 2007, the presidential campaigns slipped through our fingers at about this stage almost without us realising it," one Socialist politician said.

Vincent Schweitzer, a Hollande activist in Lorraine, said: "The mood on the street is strongly anti-Sarko but it is not yet pro-Hollande... We still have a lot of work to do to convince them."

The danger does not come from President Sarkozy alone. The most recent polls point to the possibility of a three- or even four-horse race to the first round, finishing post. Only the top two candidates go into the second round.

A rough poll-of-polls puts Mr Hollande on 26 to 29 per cent; Mr Sarkozy on 22 to 24 per cent; the far-right National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen, on 18 to 21 per cent and the centrist candidate, François Bayrou, on about 15 per cent.

Even President Sarkozy's chances could be improved by economic calamity this spring. He would tell the French people: "To rescue your way of life, you need a tough and experienced leader." He rehearsed that argument yesterday when he proposed the kind of drastic measures to improve competitiveness which he has avoided for five years.

Mr Hollande has campaigned so far as if Mr Sarkozy's unpopularity was the only key he needed to the Elysee Palace. That could change this weekend.

Mr Hollande has been writing his Le Bourget speech himself. Socialist party sources say he will try to bridge the credibility gap between his "new French dream" rhetoric and his clunky, technocratic policy proposals.

That, apparently, is a promise.