Who Is François Hollande? What You Need to Know About France’s Next President

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Lionel Bonaventure/Pool/Reuters

Outgoing French President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, and newly elected President François Hollande attend a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on May 8, 2012

Most of the world now knows François Hollande as the man who won France’s May 6 presidential election, and in so doing made incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy the nation’s first single-term head of state in 31 years. Many people have also heard Hollande described as the “anti-Sarkozy”: a self-styled Monsieur Normal who prefers low-volume discussion, consensus and unassuming behavior to the driving, head-knocking, cleaving ways of Sarkozy’s “bling-bling” presidency.

But few people outside France actually know who François Hollande is. Where does the president-elect come from? And how is he likely to act in office? Here’s my modest attempt at a primer:

It’s little wonder Hollande arrives on the international scene an enigma: his presidential victory aside, the 57-year-old doesn’t wield a political resumé studded with headline-grabbing accomplishments. Hollande has no previous experience in a national government position. His 1997-2008 stint as head of France’s Socialist Party (PS) represents his highest-profile role. Beyond that, Hollande’s public service bone fides reside in his work as a junior adviser to the late Socialist President François Mitterrand in the 1980s and his elections to parliament and regional office in the Corrèze area of southwestern France—a political stronghold he shared with former center-right President Jacques Chirac.

(MORE: After Winning the French Presidency, What Will François Hollande Do Next?)

Like Chirac before him, Hollande eventually managed to extend enough of his enormous local popularity across the nation to capture the Elysée—even as his opponents cautioned voters that public appeal alone is not sufficient to qualify as head of state. “He doesn’t have the stature to be president,” warned former First Lady Bernadette Chirac in March as she backed Sarkozy’s re-election bid. “Being president requires a lot of experience—long political training. You need to have been a minister, you need to have many international contacts.” Bad luck for Madame Chirac that her husband—the ex-president—backed his former political foe, Hollande, over the largely unproductive and embattled leadership of his fellow conservative, Sarkozy.

“Sarkozy had lots of ministerial experience and was still a bad president, and he had more stature than voters could stand,” retorts Bernard Poignant, the Socialist mayor of the Breton city of Quimper and a close Hollande friend. “François dislikes brutality, avoids imposing his will on people, and much prefers motivating people into doing what he wants them to do. He usually gets what he wants—which we’ve now once again seen.”

French political analyst Alain Duhamel notes that even though Sarkozy’s flash brashness and razor-tongued treatment of opponents was ultimately judged by voters as too vulgar for the presidency, Hollande’s naturally unpretentious style has long handicapped his ambitions for high political office.

(MORE: The Anti-Sarkozy: How French Presidential Candidate Francois Hollande Would Lead)

“Hollande’s strength is his truly impressive intelligence, but that’s an asset the public never saw because Hollande has never been prone to marketing his intelligence or himself as most politicians do,” says Duhamel. “But he’s very obstinate, never changes or loses sight of objectives he sets, and will plan and wait for the opportunity to take his best shot. We’ve seen that demonstrated again with a presidential victory most people never saw coming.”

In fairness, few people could have predicted Hollande’s rise to the Elysée. His biography reads more like one of a technocrat who meanders into politics—and ends up atop the summit of power. Born in 1954 in the Norman city of Rouen to an extreme-right physician father and progressive social worker mother, Hollande moved to Paris with his family in the politically tumultuous year of 1968. Too young at 13 to get caught up in the student revolt in May of that year, Hollande embarked upon the classic educational journey of France’s administrative elite. After sailing through the nation’s exacting lycée public system, he studied at Paris’ elite Institut de Sciences Politiques and France’s leading business school, l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales.

Hollande then entered l’Ecole Nationale d’Administration, the finishing school for France’s political, business and bureaucratic establishment. It was there that he met the future mother of his four children, Ségolène Royal, with whom he shared a 30-year relationship. (That ended shortly after Royal’s 2007 presidential election loss to Sarkozy. Hollande is now partnered with French TV journalist Valerie Trierweiler.) Prior to doing political work under Socialist officials like Mitterrand—and eventually running for office himself—Hollande served in French state administrations as a high-ranking civil servant.

(MORE: French Toast: How Sarkozy Found Himself on the Verge of Presidential Defeat)

Hollande’s work with Mitterrand in conceiving the euro and the rules governing it undermine claims from detractors that he’s ready to kill the currency by throwing off austerity and increasing France’s huge public debt. His claim to the Mitterrand heritage aside, Hollande is far closer to Jacques Delors, the former European Commission president still revered for his integrationist accomplishments. And despite German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s hot opposition to Hollande’s pledge to renegotiate Europe’s austerity-focused fiscal pact to add growth stimulus aspects, some predict Merkel will ultimately find she has more in common with the new French president than with Sarkozy.

“Hollande looks and acts like a softie people think they can influence and push around, while he’s actually working them into accepting a compromise on things they initially rejected outright,” says Poignant. “Their politics notwithstanding, François and Madame Merkel are actually quite alike—including how they use rivals under-estimating them to their advantage.”

Duhamel agrees. “There will be no Franco-German crisis because the growth positions of the ascendant Hollande are now the European consensus,” he predicts. “And Madame Merkel will ultimately accept a growth stimulus treaty established parallel to her fiscal pact so Europe can move ahead and she can worry about elections of her own. They’ll get on fine.”

The question then becomes whether that will succeed in spurring economic growth in France and elsewhere in the euro zone and allow states to gradually reduce debt levels. Because if French voters elected Hollande in part due to a rejection of Sarkozy’s style, their main motive in opting for new leadership was to punish the departing president’s failure to improve the country’s economic and employment outlook. And the clock has begun ticking on those counts even before Hollande has been sworn in.

(MORE: Ballot-Box Breakdown: How Europe’s Elections Will Heat Up the Debt Crisis)