Before he ran for the Socialist Party nomination in 2011 François Hollande was an identikit politician: son of a left-wing Catholic mother and avidly right-wing father, degree from Sciences-Po, brilliant énarque, father of four (with Ségolène Royal), bon viveur and party machine man, tracing a line from Mitterrand through Jacques Delors to Lionel Jospin. When Jospin became prime minister in 1997 and had to resign his post as head of the PS, he urged the membership to elect Hollande as his successor. Hollande ran and won the ballot against Jean-Luc Mélenchon. In the same year he retook the seat in the Assembly that he’d lost to the right a few years earlier. He’d been punished, he reasoned, for neglecting his parliamentary voters in favour of party business.

His seat was in Corrèze, several hours and cultures away from his native Rouen and the party HQ in Paris. An affable man, a football fan (celebrity and populism) in a rugby union environment (grit and regionalism), Hollande would leave the capital on Thursdays for his constituency and return, ready for action on Monday, as head of the party. He was a lacklustre first secretary but his constituents in Corrèze, historically to the right, were impressed. He was re-elected in 2002 and 2007. By now he was also a mayor, having served as deputy to a communist in Tulle, a small town in Corrèze famous for its lace, less well known for the fact that the four generals who led the Algerian putsch against De Gaulle in 1961 were whisked from military detention to the town slammer. Hollande was mayor of Tulle for seven years.

In 2007 he stood discreetly in the background while his partner Ségolène Royal lost the presidency to Sarkozy; a month later, at the time of the legislative elections, the couple announced their separation. Hollande retained his seat in the Assembly and resigned as mayor of Tulle in 2008 to become head of the local administration of Corrèze. A few months later the leadership of the Socialist Party passed to Martine Aubry. Hardly a conspicuous figure in the first place, Hollande was about to effect an unremarkable disappearance, slipping entirely from view as all eyes turned to Aubry and Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Then in 2010 polls began to suggest he had a following and in March 2011 he announced his intention to run. Still, it was thought, DSK would resign from the IMF, sweep back into the party HQ and win the nomination. Only one of those things happened. DSK was indisposed at the time of the primaries. The transfigured Hollande was leaner – and doubtless hungrier. His mastery of the diet made the press sit up and take notice; above all, the party was keen. In October 2011, six months after Strauss-Kahn fell out of the race, Hollande became the presidential candidate for the Socialists and the Radical Left Party. He has said more than once that he would have preferred to battle it out with DSK but Aubry was the only other candidate left standing.

The story of Hollande’s nomination and the presidential campaign is told with wit and great charm by the novelist Laurent Binet in Rien ne se passe comme prévu (Grasset, ¤17), a Hunter S. Thompson-style, all-aboard diary which follows the candidate through two contests, from the summer of 2011 to the night of 6 May 2012 at the place de la Bastille where the future president of the Republic addressed an inaudible, impromptu speech to the crowd – ‘Be happy, be proud’ – and then retired for a few words with his entourage. ‘You ask yourself: will it last?’ he said in reply to a question from Binet, a Hollande partisan. ‘Will they still be there in three months’ time? … One knows it’s very fragile.’ And then, always ready to give the enemy his dismal due: ‘Tonight I sensed a crowd very much against Sarkozy.’ He wasn’t fishing for compliments.

One of the tactical mistakes that dogged him was his interview with Angelique Chrisafis for the Guardian in February, just before he left for a visit to London. She cast him as ‘a jovial, consensus-building rural MP’; he told her, among other things, that under Mitterrand ‘the left was in government for 15 years, in which we liberalised the economy and opened up the markets to finance and privatisations.’ By then he had warmed fatally to his theme and insisted that ‘today there are no communists in France.’ Mélenchon was up in arms: with 138,000 members the PCF was a crucial ingredient of his Front de Gauche. Sarkozy pounced: Hollande was a hypocrite, playing Mitterrand to the voters and Mme Thatcher to the British press. In short order the Guardian appended the rest of Hollande’s quote about the communists – ‘there are no communists in France, or not many’ – but it was a dab of antiseptic on an injury that needed stitches.

Binet was always troubled by the Guardian interview – as he was by what he saw as Hollande’s other great mistake, a lunch with Bernard-Henri Lévy in a swanky restaurant near Fouquet’s – and he brought up the interview again, on 6 May, during the victory flight from Tulle that took Hollande to Paris for his Bastille moment. On the plane Hollande reviewed the Guardian saga: ‘The mistake was to say yes to a British newspaper.’ Besides, it was pointless going to London, even counterproductive, just as it had been for Royal, the PS candidate in 2007, to visit China. ‘Everyone is focused on international issues, but in a French presidential election that’s never where it plays out.’ A few hours later at the Bastille it was time to acknowledge all the parties of the left. Gazing into the darkness at the sea of jubilation, everyone on the podium could pick out the flags of Mélenchon’s coalition and a huge banner held aloft by those non-existent communists. ‘I wasn’t sure I should thank the Communist Party,’ Hollande tells Binet, ‘but in the end I thought, whatever’ (‘finalement je me suis dit bof’).

He is no more than three months in, if you subtract August, a low-key month in the political calendar, although his ratings have fallen precipitously and the government is already divided on his pledge to reduce the number of France’s nuclear reactors. But it’s too early to talk of Hollande’s eclipse. Binet discovered a genuine liking for the man behind ‘Mr Normal’. It’s infectious: he emerges as funny, steely and clear-headed, a realist with cautious ambitions for redistribution and regeneration in an era when the markets are dancing on the graves of Europe’s social democrats. Perhaps this champion of managed capitalism is just a ghost and the French voters are a rabble of bony spectres in his wake. But he has all the marks of a militant steeped in the discipline of the long game. Time is short, however, and Angela Merkel will determine whether or not an indebted left republic at the heart of the EU can become a reality.

Perhaps the president who thinks that ‘democracy is stronger than the markets,’ whose key text is The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus, really can keep pushing his boulder up the incline against the odds. But the burden of equality – one of his key principles – crumbles and fissures every time it hurtles back to the starting point: safer to be Blair or Sarkozy and skip up the hill for the umpteenth time brandishing a token shard. Without equality, he said in the speech in January that set him on the road to the Elysée, Camus would have remained the hapless son of a dead father and a deaf mother.

A few weeks after Hollande won the party nomination Emmanuel Todd predicted that the depth of the crisis would force him to serve as a radical president, moving further to the left, just as Mitterrand had moved further to the right. Binet liked the interview, in the online journal Mediapart, and sent the link to Hollande. In a cover note he said that Todd’s forecasts were ‘infallible’ (he was thinking of the fall of the Soviet Union, the financial crisis and the Arab spring). Hollande would surely be interested to know that he’d be moving from ‘centre left to a much more radical politics’. Binet appended Todd’s portrait of Sarkozy, unflattering to say the least: ‘strong in the face of the weak,’ he said of Sarko, ‘weak in the face of the strong.’ Hollande’s reply to the email and the link was admirably elusive. ‘Not wrong. I mean the portrait. Best, FH.’

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