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'Mr Normal' comes out fighting for French vote

Ahead in the polls, Socialist candidate goes on the offensive to shrug off 'soft' image

A newly-energised French presidential front-runner, François Hollande, answered his critics yesterday with a barnstorming speech in which he promised to create a new "French dream".

At a packed public meeting to launch the final phase of his campaign, the Socialist candidate tore into President Nicolas Sarkozy's "vain" and "zig-zag" style of leadership, without once mentioning him by name. He promised to balance France's budget within five years and to take on the "faceless" world of finance, which he said governed without "ever standing for election".

He promised to cut presidential and ministerial salaries by 30 per cent and to negotiate – within six months of the second round of the election on 6 May – a new Franco-German treaty which would put growth, not just austerity, at the heart of the battle to save the euro. If elected, Mr Hollande said, he would decide within a month whether to pull French troops out of Afghanistan.

In an 83-minute speech in Le Bourget, north of Paris, Mr Hollande, 57, appeared finally to give narrative and voice to a campaign which has often seemed as flat as his namesake country. Although he rides high in the polls, increasing his first-round lead in a new survey at the weekend, many supporters had begun to criticise his cautious and low-octane style of politics.

But yesterday, to deafening roars of approval from a crowd of 25,000 – double the number expected – Mr Hollande sought to make his quiet, plodding personality a virtue in menacing times. "I am not someone who shows off," he said. "I remain myself. That's my strength. That's who I am."

Centre-right politicians have mocked Mr Hollande's earlier promise to be a "normal" president, compared with the noisy razzmatazz of the Sarkozy years. But Socialist campaign managers appear to believe that could be a potential vote-winner. Some Hollande supporters yesterday wore sweat-shirts in Socialist colours emblazoned with the single word "normal".

Mr Hollande will announce a detailed presidential programme on Thursday. In his speech yesterday, he repeated previous promises to radically reform the French income tax system and to create 60,000 new teaching jobs. He made a rather vague pledge to abolish the French budget deficit – now running at 5.7 per cent of GDP – over five years.

He sprang a couple of surprises, intended to please left-wing voters without costing a euro. If elected, he said, he would enshrine in the French constitution the law of 1905 which guarantees the secularity of the French state. He said he would take on his "real opponent", the world of finance, by imposing a "true" tax on all financial transactions, and would ban French high street banks from speculation or operations in offshore tax havens.

Most of all, however, Mr Hollande tried to banish the accusation that he is likeable but soft politician: the name Flamby, a kind of caramel pudding, has been applied to him by enemies and some supposed allies alike.