Analysis: Left-leaning French push against the EU tide

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The man polls say has the best shot at becoming France’s next president wants to hire thousands more teachers, renegotiate Europe’s bail-out package, and re-assess his country’s role in both Afghanistan and Nato.

But Socialist François Hollande appeals less for his platform than for his persona: the innocuous, intellectual everyman is many things that conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy is not.

Hollande, 57, is tapping into a French population wary of international finance, weary of Sarkozy’s “bling-bling” personality and eager for change. While countries in struggling Europe shift to the right, France may hand the presidency to the left for the first time in a generation. Part of Hollande’s appeal is his Mr Nice Guy image, but he still must convince voters that he’s got what it takes to run one of the world’s biggest economies.

He isn’t the only left-winger making headlines in this campaign: firebrand far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon has amassed some of the biggest crowds so far.

French voters kick off the balloting in two weeks, with ten candidates from across the political spectrum facing off in a first-round vote on 22 April that will narrow the race to two.

While Hollande has slipped a little in recent weeks, polls have suggested for months that he would win an expected final vote against Sarkozy on 6 May by a broad margin.

A Hollande victory could put France out of step with other big European countries such as Germany, Spain and Poland – all run by centre-right or conservative leaders. Some of Hollande’s major proposals could raise eyebrows abroad: as other governments enact austerity measures, he wants to hire thousands more teachers. He wants to scrap a European bailout package led by Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel. He has pledged to pull all French combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year, and says that pledge would be the first thing he tells allies at a Nato summit in May.

For many in France, the time seems ripe for a return to a Socialist president: the only one in postwar France was François Mitterrand, from 1981 to 1995.

Hollande is seen as more of a consensus manager and a listener than visionary. For much of his tenure as party first secretary from 1997 to 2008, he served mostly as an assistant to party elders, and only now is coming into his own.

His advisers insist he is no old-school Socialist, yet when he speaks to the French faithful, Hollande’s class-warfare style rhetoric – railing against the financial world and demanding justice for the underclass – often draws cheers.

His biggest challenge has been to appear presidential. While his pedigree is top-tier as a graduate of the Ecole National d’Administration – a breeding-ground for France’s political and corporate elites – he has never run a government ministry.

On Les Guignols de l’Info, a Spitting Image-style TV satire show, Hollande has long been depicted as innocent, wide-eyed and soft-in-the-middle – with a dopey, hollow laugh. But in the Sarkozy era, he’s tapped into frustration about unemployment and perceived economic inequality. While Sarkozy, a former interior minister, has trotted out his formula of playing up his security credentials, Hollande has focused on what polls show worry the French most: joblessness and the economy.