French presidential hopeful Hollande, the anti-Sarkozy

Few men could be more different than Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, the Socialist who on Sunday beat the French leader in the first round of their presidential battle.

Bespectacled and mild-mannered, Hollande vowed to be a consensus-builder, a "normal president" in contrast to the hyperactive and aggressive Sarkozy, who he will now face in a May 6 run-off for the top job in France.

Hollande, playing on the French public's disappointment in Sarkozy's flamboyant style, has hammered at the incumbent's record, with the vote turning into a referendum on his opponent's personality.

"The next head of state must be the opposite of Nicolas Sarkozy," Hollande has said.

But recent weeks have also seen Hollande's weaknesses -- his lack of experience, his bland image, his ideological "softness" -- exposed as Sarkozy ratcheted up his campaign.

The 57-year-old Socialist remains the frontrunner in the race with polls showing him with a comfortable lead over his right-wing rival for the May 6 second round of the presidential vote.

A protege of modernising former European Commission chairman Jacques Delors, Hollande is of the generation groomed under the last, and only previous, Socialist president, Francois Mitterrand, who left office in 1995.

Born in 1954 in the northern city of Rouen, Hollande was the son of a doctor with far-right sympathies and a social worker.

He was educated at the elite Ecole National d'Administration (ENA), where in 1978 he met Segolene Royal, whom Sarkozy defeated in the 2007 presidential vote, and the couple started a three-decade relationship.

In 1981, as Mitterrand swept to power, Hollande challenged Jacques Chirac, who later become French president, to represent the south-central Correze region in parliament: but he lost.

Chirac retains affection for his old rival and even said he would vote for Hollande, though he later passed off his remark as a joke.

Hollande eventually won the seat in 1988 and was re-elected in 1997, 2002 and 2007.

In 1997 he took over the Socialist Party leadership, a post he held until 2008 when he was replaced by former labour minister Martine Aubry, whom he defeated in a primary for the candidacy in October.

Some had pushed for Hollande to take on Sarkozy in the 2007 race but Royal had already emerged as the leading Socialist nominee.

The couple, who by then had four children, split before the vote but news of the break-up did not emerge until after Royal's defeat.

Hollande is now in a relationship with political journalist Valerie Trierweiler. She reportedly encouraged him to lose 10 kilogrammes (22 pounds) of unpresidential body fat and adopt thinner-framed glasses for the campaign.

Having never run a ministry or held other top roles, much has been made of Hollande's lack of government experience. Even in his own camp, critics during the primary accused him of being "wishy-washy" and unable to take decisions.

Socialist former prime minister Jospin has sought to address those concerns, saying Hollande was "widely involved in all decision making" during his tenure.

Hollande has presented a classic Socialist platform for the vote, promising to boost taxes on the rich, increase social spending and create thousands of state jobs.

He has worried some with declarations that the "world of finance" is his "enemy" and his vow to re-negotiate a hard-fought eurozone fiscal pact; but other commentators say Hollande would likely be a more pragmatic leader.

If he does move into the Elysee Palace after the vote, Hollande's rise will have as much to do with circumstances as his own political acumen, experts say.

He only emerged as the candidate after former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then considered the favourite to defeat Sarkozy, was engulfed in a scandal last May over allegations of attempted rape by a New York hotel maid.

"Hollande's nomination was more than anything else an incredible stroke of luck," said political analyst Frederic Sawicki.

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