Francois Hollande, party insider set to challenge Sarkozy

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French Socialist Francois Hollande, who will represent the left in next year's presidential vote, is a long-time party insider who despite decades in politics has never held high office.

Previously best known for having been half of the "Golden Couple" of the French left with former presidential candidate Segolene Royal, Hollande was chosen in a primary Sunday to take on President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The 57-year-old former party leader and lawmaker from the south-central Correze region faced questions during the primary about his lack of managerial experience but countered that he would be seen as a fresh face.

A protege of modernising former European Commission chairman Jacques Delors, the bespectacled Hollande is of the generation groomed under the last French Socialist president, Francois Mitterand, who left office in 1995.

Born in 1954 in the 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 Royal, whom Sarkozy defeated in the 2007 presidential vote, and the couple started a three-decades relationship.

In 1981, as Mitterand swept to power, Hollande challenged later French president Jacques Chirac to represent Correze in parliament but lost. He eventually won the seat in 1988 and was re-elected in 1997, 2002 and 2007.

In 1997, then-prime minister Lionel Jospin handed him the Socialist Party leadership, a post he held until 2008, when he was replaced by former labour minister Martine Aubry, his rival in Sunday's primary vote for the Socialist nomination.

Aubry has since claimed she found the organisation in a sorry state. During the primary, she also made much of Hollande's lack of executive experience as he has never held a ministerial post.

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.

Royal said later she had asked Hollande to leave their home after discovering he had been having an affair. He is now in a relationship with political journalist Valerie Trierweiler.

Hollande's relationship with Royal has reportedly been frosty since, but she nonetheless backed him for the nomination after she was eliminated in the first round of the primary.

Hollande emerged as the frontrunner for the nomination after IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then considered the favourite to defeat Sarkozy, was engulfed in a scandal over allegations of attempted rape by a New York hotel maid.

The case against him was later dropped, but his career was over.

Derided by some -- including Aubry -- as being from the "soft left", Hollande fought back during the primary campaign by presenting himself as a unifier who could lure centrist voters.

After losing 10 kilogrammes (22 pounds) of unpresidential body fat, Hollande also sought to portray himself as a man of the people who drives around Paris on a scooter -- in contrast to Sarkozy's high-flying style.

© 2011 AFP

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