SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
French voters go to the polls three weeks from today to cast ballots in the first round of their presidential election. Current president Nicolas Sarkozy is fighting for his life in a close race against a man who has never held national office, and is virtually unknown outside of France. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sends this profile of socialist candidate Francois Hollande.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: At the Cirque d'Hiver, a small, 19th century circus ring in the center of Paris, the starring act on this March evening is Francois Hollande.
FRANCOIS HOLLANDE: (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: As the unassuming, bespectacled presidential candidate takes center ring, the crowd's enthusiasm seems almost out of synch with his low-key manner. Yet the man who calls himself Mr. Normal, is exactly what many people are looking for after five years of hyperactive drama under President Nicolas Sarkozy, says political analyst Andre Bercoff.
ANDRE BERCOFF: Not because they are enthusiastic about Hollande - not on love or enthusiasm or his charisma or all this. It is really, if he can get rid of Sarkozy for us, that could be fine.
BEARDSLEY: Attending the rally was Ben Roques, who says he works as an actor. Roques says Hollande would be a breath of fresh air after Sarkozy and all his anti-immigrant talk.
BEN ROQUES: I was really ashamed, ashamed about France these last five years with such a xenophobic president. And I think Francois Hollande will be much better.
(SOUNDBITE OF A CAMPAIGN FILM)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: A campaign film portrays Hollande as a unifier and consensus builder from small town France. Hollande is a congressman from a rural district. His biggest job has been to serve as Socialist Party secretary. Last fall, Hollande won the nomination of his party, which has not held the French presidency since Francois Mitterrand was elected in 1981.
During the last election in 2007, the Socialists chose Segolene Royale, Hollande's decades-long partner and the mother of his four children. She lost to Sarkozy and the couple has since split up.
The boring, but solid Hollande might have been overlooked for a flashier candidate again this time around. Former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn was considered the runaway favorite to beat Sarkozy. But Strauss-Kahn imploded in a series of sex scandals, leaving the way clear for Hollande.
Franz Olivier Giesbert, editor of weekly newsmagazine Le Point, describes Strauss-Kahn as decadent, and says he always believed Hollande was a better candidate.
FRANZ OLIVIER GIESBERT: He's very brilliant - very, very smart. He knows really very well his subjects, especially on economy. And very witty. He's one of the wittiest politicians I ever met - very fast. Very fast when he talks, not when he takes decision. He knows how to give time to time as Francois Mitterrand used to say.
BEARDSLEY: Mitterrand is Hollande's mentor and the candidate evokes him often on the campaign trail. Hollande is even said to mimic Mitterrand's gestures. And like Mitterrand, Hollande engages in anti-capitalist rhetoric.
HOLLANDE: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: He has no face and no name, but the world of big finance is my real adversary, he said recently.
Hollande is calling for higher taxes on banks, big firms and the rich to help cut the public deficit. He wants to pump funds into education and job creation, and says he'll renegotiate a European austerity treaty if elected. His talk has so worried Europe's financiers that Hollande recently travelled to London where he told employees in the financial district: You have nothing to fear.
Sarkozy's camp accused Hollande of being two-faced, Margaret Thatcher in London and Francois Mitterrand in Paris.
(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL RALLY)
BEARDSLEY: But observers say Hollande's anti-capitalist talk is clearly aimed at placating the far-left of his party. The radical Socialists came out in force at a recent Paris rally to support their candidate, Jean Luc Melenchon, who has been gaining in the polls.
Editor Giesbert says Hollande has no choice but to woo this crowd.
GIESBERT: There is a strong left in France. And the left of the party doesn't like Francois Hollande. There are many fights. So he wants to talk to this electorate. He wants to be supported by his left. So that's why he gives promises that I'm not sure he's going to follow through.
BEARDSLEY: Some observers say Hollande is a pragmatic realist who knows France can not go on a spending spree. They say once Hollande is elected, he'll use his combination of smarts and consensus building skills to bring about the reforms France needs only slowly and gently.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.