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
News
news
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
New Articles
tvChristmas special reviewed
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Sport
sport
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

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all