Low-key, witty and not Nicolas Sarkozy – why France likes the quiet man François Hollande

Hollande's critics say he lacks passion, but his tactics may work. John Lichfield sees a growing threat to the President at a rally in Besançon
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Other candidates make grand entrances to their campaign rallies, using dramatic spotlights and portentous music like boxing champions. François Hollande enters quietly from stage left as if he were a headmaster about to take morning assembly.

Mr Hollande, who may be president of France in a month, likes to do everything quietly. He even manages to shout quietly. "I want to tell you one simple thing," he said to an overflowing rally in Besançon, in the east of France, this week."I am ready. I am ready to win. I am ready to be President of France. I am ready to transform our country."

Mr Hollande may win but "transform" is an uncharacteristically dramatic word for the Socialist candidate's cautious and, in places, vague programme.

There are now 10 days to the first round of the French presidential elections and the opinion poll meltdown of Mr Hollande – predicted regularly by President Nicolas Sarkozy's camp – has yet to happen. Three new polls this week show him narrowing the small lead that Mr Sarkozy holds before the 10-candidate, first round of voting on 22 April. They also suggest the Socialist candidate has maintained his substantial lead over Mr Sarkozy in the two-candidate second round on 6 May, with the latest surveys showing the President trailing Mr Hollande by up to 10 points.

"Last Sunday, [Mr Sarkozy] said that he could feel a wave building," Mr Hollande told 8,000 people in Besançon. "Me too. I feel a wave of indignation, a wave of exasperation, a wave of anger... a wave which has been building for five years." Note that he did not claim a wave of enthusiasm for himself; only a wave of fury against Mr Sarkozy.

Mr Hollande, 57, must be the most criticised front-runner in the history of politics. He is mocked by Mr Sarkozy as soft, indecisive, elitist and a liar. He is mocked by the far left as a "fake" socialist or, worse, a "Blairist". He is criticised within his own camp for failing to generate passion or enthusiasm.

Indeed, opinion polls, once overwhelmingly in his favour, began to move last month towards the hard-right posturing of Mr Sarkozy and the hard-left pyrotechnics of Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

But Mr Hollande remained convinced that his own quiet "normality" was the best strategy in this year's campaign and he held his nerve in the face of the polls. He repeated his plodding, somewhat evasive message: we must have budgetary rigor but there must also be some stimulus for growth and fairness for all.

On the stump, he is the least impressive of the leading candidates – and the most likeable. Mr Sarkozy exudes energy, vanity and anger. Mr Hollande, like his namesake country, is somewhat flat but pleasant and efficient. He can also be funny. Quietness does not necessarily mean passivity.

In Besançon, Mr Hollande wittily skewered Mr Sarkozy's tendency to make absurd and untrue boasts. Attacking Mr Hollande's plans to reduce France's 80 per cent dependence on nuclear energy, Mr Sarkozy claimed recently to have "visited" the site of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in Japan.

"We checked. He didn't," Mr Hollande said. "Mr Sarkozy is a trailblazer in all things, even in presidential visits that he has never made."

Does Mr Hollande also make claims with no basis in reality? He promises, like Mr Sarkozy, to reduce France's 5.4 per cent of GDP budget deficit to zero over six years. But he is largely silent about the cuts that will be needed.

He also promises to spend more on education and pensions, and tax-breaks to create jobs for the young. He promises to reopen the negotiations on the European Union fiscal pact to impose a new chapter on "growth creation". In one of his most eye-catching pronouncements, he wants, symbolically, to impose 75 per cent tax on incomes over €1m (£825,000).

None of this is as impractical and "dangerous" as the Sarkozy camp claims. Nor would it "transform" France. Neither the candidate, nor his programme, is built to excite passions. Mr Hollande told the Besançon rally that he was the candidate of "hope", not just the "anti-Sarkozy"candidate. Still, his strategy is to drift home on the anti-Sarkozy tide. More than 50 per cent of his supporters say they plan to vote for him because he is the "only man who can beat Sarkozy".

But a quiet, passion-free campaign has its own dangers. It has already encouraged the rise of the crowd-pleasing, anti-capitalist Mr Mélenchon on Mr Hollande's left. Lack of popular enthusiasm for the front-runner could contribute to a low, left-wing turn-out that could yet make a mockery of the opinion polls.