TIME Interviews French Presidential Front-Runner François Hollande

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Thierry Zoccolan / AFP / Getty Images

France's Socialist Party (PS) candidate for the 2012 French presidential election Francois Hollande is picture during a campaign meeting on April 12, 2012 in Clermont-Ferrand.

This is an extended version of TIME’s interview with Socialist Party candidate and Elysée frontrunner François Hollande. A condensed text  is published in the international editions of TIME (and available to subscribers here).

French Socialist presidential candidate François Hollande is projected by polls to beat incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in the runoff stage of voting in France’s presidential election on May 6. He spoke with TIME’s Bruce Crumley about his main opponent, his policy priorities and his plans for France and Europe.

Why doesn’t a leader like Nicolas Sarkozy — who’s viewed as a successful statesman abroad — get more credit at home for foreign policy achievements?

I don’t think his international track record is viewed as all that positive. Remember his complicity with George [W.] Bush. His deals with Gaddafi and his shameful hosting of the Libyan leader in Paris remain a smear on France’s record. His embrace of Bashar Assad and his Africa policy that has literally shocked people with its cynicism have also been widely decried. It’s true his more recent role in Libya was commendable, and his hard position on Syria has been right — though, again, regarding a dictator he earlier embraced. Similarly, his action within the [euro] crisis has been viewed as responsive but contrasts with his two years of hesitation before things became urgent. So Sarkozy’s more recent international decisions contrast the earlier ones that mostly produced failures and reversals.

Nicolas Sarkozy faces deep unpopularity for his domestic policy choices, results, and leadership style. Is this election just a referendum on his presidency?

It’s not as simple as that. There’s clearly a demand for greater modesty and proximity from the next president, but also a demand for authority. Nicolas Sarkozy has relied on the authority element—and placed issues like security, immigration and power of the state at the heart of his campaign. There are also people who view Sarkozy in a positive manner—as a decider, a leader who doesn’t hesitate. But he’s primarily seen as someone who hasn’t resolved France’s problems, hasn’t calmed its fears, and who has continually improvised on a large number of important decisions.

I must demonstrate I’m closer to people—a simpler, calmer presence, yet someone who can also make decisions and obtain promised results. That’s what voters are electing the president to do: make decisions—often hard, critical decisions—and get things done. Simply not being Nicolas Sarkozy won’t be enough to win the election.

What would be the biggest differences between you in the Elysée and Sarkozy’s so-called bling-bling presidency?

The difference in style speaks for itself. Beyond that, perhaps the biggest changes people will see are coherency, consistency, and wider policy stability. People are tired of constant movement, improvisation, and wild scrambling when plans fail. They’ve been left with very little for all their efforts. People know the country is facing considerable problems and challenges, but they don’t see why those can’t be handled in a sustained manner, with calm and reflection, and over a long period. Another big change will be a focus on fairness. That’s the condition people will require for making further effort, and that’s been discarded and forgotten under Sarkozy. That isn’t a question of style. It has to do with priorities and values.

What sort of fairness?

People need to see signs of equal treatment across society. Those won’t only be reflected in increased spending. They can be in moves to increase public income. In (raising taxes), you must show that if everyone is being asked to make greater effort, those who have the most will be asked to contribute their full share first. People must see that while the collective effort may be long and difficult, it’s going to be fair—and involve everyone.

Is saving the French welfare model possible as part of that?

One thing that makes France different from other countries is the tradition of social solidarity. People from all backgrounds and political positions are willing to contribute for services and protection of society as a whole — but on the condition that money is being spent effectively and that everyone is paying their part.

You’ve said you’d renegotiate the fiscal compact treaty created in response to the debt and euro crisis if you’re elected. What exact changes would you seek?

The first point of negotiation will be to create new financial capabilities for growth. In the short term, not so much in the form of eurobonds but rather in “project bonds” to finance European Union growth projects. The second is that the European Investment Bank — which already has borrowing powers — can borrow funds to support innovative small and medium-size companies in Europe. Third, I’ll ask that structural funds that already exist, but which today aren’t being used, be freed up for deployment as growth stimulus — including by countries like Greece, Portugal, Spain. Finally, the European Financial Stability Mechanism must be considered as a bank and be capable of benefiting from European Central Bank intervention in the event of major speculative activity, or to purchase sovereign debt when necessary.

Renegotiation is opposed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and could weaken the Franco-German partnership.

That partnership shouldn’t be a directorate for other E.U. members. Today it’s not even a genuine partnership, because one half is currently driving and the other is a passenger. France has become a follower in the relationship.  Europe needs an engine, and the Franco-German motor has provided that when the two nations have converged on important topics during critical periods. But that partnership shouldn’t be a directorate for other EU members. Today, it’s not even a genuine partnership, because one half is currently driving, and the other is a passenger. France has become a follower in the relationship.

So you’ll be looking for other EU allies in your effort to re-negotiate the Sarkozy-Merkel stability treaty?

We need the help of other member countries and leaders who, like us, want to see a change in Europe’s direction. That’s also my logic when I tell voters that electing me president will not only shape France’s future, but also initiate change across all of Europe. People, everywhere, don’t just want things done differently—they want things done more fairly.

How can Europe facilitate that?

I think the priority now is to improve ways the European Union operates and strengthen its practices as we go forward together. I’m favorable to countries wanting to push ahead faster with common projects and initiatives being allowed to do so. That could be done with European defense accords, industrial projects, fiscal harmonization—or, indeed, on a common tax on financial transactions. We shouldn’t be waiting for unanimous agreement that isn’t always possible, and can’t always be obtained in respect of national sovereignty concerns. The existing treaty allows countries desiring to move forward faster together to do just that when others prefer to opt out. We should do that when it appears productive and possible.