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

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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot