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Hollande rides mood as France embraces left

RENNES, France — The man polls say has the best shot at becoming France's next president wants to hire thousands more teachers, re-negotiate Europe's expensive, hard-won bailout package, and reassess his country's role in both Afghanistan and NATO.

But Socialist Francois Hollande appeals less for his platform than for his persona: the innocuous, intellectual everyman is many things that conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy is not.

Hollande, 57, is tapping into a French population wary of international finance, weary of Sarkozy's "bling-bling" personality and eager for change. While countries in struggling Europe shift to the right, France may hand the presidency to the left for the first time in a generation, with repercussions for the continent's direction and France's future.

Part of Hollande's appeal is his Mr. Nice Guy image, but he still must convince voters that he's got what it takes to run a complex, nuclear-armed nation and one of the world's biggest economies.

Hollande isn't the only leftist making headlines in this campaign: Firebrand far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon has amassed some of the biggest crowds so far at rallies blanketed in red communist flags. Melenchon, with the charisma that the mainstream Hollande lacks, is complicating the political calculus.

French voters kick off the balloting in two weeks, with 10 candidates from across the political spectrum facing off in a first-round vote on April 22 that will winnow the race down to two.

While Hollande has slipped a little in recent weeks, polls have suggested for months that he would win the expected two-man finale against Sarkozy on May 6 by a broad margin.

The economic crisis in Europe has felled many governments in recent years. A Hollande victory could break from a recent rightward trend in the continent, and put France out of step with other big European countries like Germany, Spain, Britain and Poland — all run by center-right or conservative leaders. Italy, hobbled by a debt crisis, is led by technocrat Mario Monti.

Some of Hollande's major proposals could raise eyebrows abroad: As governments enact austerity measures elsewhere in Europe, he wants to hire thousands more teachers. He wants to scrap a European bailout package led by Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has pledged to pull all French combat troops out of Afghanistan by year-end, and says that pledge would be the first thing he tells allies at a NATO summit in Chicago in May.

For many in France, the time seems ripe for a return to a Socialist president: the only one in postwar France was Francois Mitterrand, from 1981 to 1995; throw-the-bums-out has been an election theme in Europe; Sarkozy, in part for reasons of personal style, has been unpopular for years; and the financial crisis and debt crises in Europe have emboldened the left.

Hollande is seen as more of a consensus manager and a listener than visionary. For much of his tenure as party first secretary from 1997 to 2008, he served mostly as a water carrier for party elders — and only now is coming into his own.

His advisers insist to a foreign reporter that Hollande is no old-school Socialist, but a social democrat wary of the economic challenges coming from 21st-century powers like China and India.

Yet while major parties of the left in Europe reformed and tacked toward the political center in recent years — like Gerhard Schroeder's Socialists in Germany, or Britain's Labour party under Tony Blair, the Socialists in France eschewed such a move.

And when he speaks to the French faithful, Hollande's class-warfare style rhetoric — inveighing against the financial world that he calls his "adversary", and demanding justice for the underclass — often draws cheers.

Hollande, who once quipped "I don't like the rich" on TV, got a recent boost in the polls after he announced a proposal to slap a 75-percent tax on income beyond the first €1 million ($1.3 million) earned each year.

Hollande on Wednesday drew thousands who spilled out of two warehouses at a convention center near the city of Rennes, in the heart of the left-leaning region of Brittany.

The highlight was Hollande's appearance alongside Segolene Royal, his longtime partner and mother of his four children. Royal, who is also Socialist, was the party's nominee in 2007 — and lost handily to Sarkozy. Hollande and Royal split not long after that election.

On stage, Hollande and Royal appeared just seconds together, and the body language was uncomfortable: they clasped hands from a distance, and smiled to the cheering throng. But the message — party unity — was clear. His new romantic partner, political journalist Valerie Trierweiler, looked on from a seat in the crowd.

Hollande's near 90-minute speech covered his platform: A focus on education, job support for French youths facing high jobless rates, equal pay for women, respect for culture and ethnic diversity. Sarkozy has structured his campaign on a theme of a "strong France."

Hollande claimed that Sarkozy, who took office promising economic growth, fiscal responsibility and competitiveness in France, had failed on all — and promised more responsible Socialist leadership.

"People say to us, 'Watch out, the left is back, it's going to empty the (state) coffers.' It's already happened! 'Watch out, if the left is back, it'll raise the debt'. It's already happened! 'The Left will hurt competitiveness' — It's already happened," he thundered. "Well, we'll do the opposite."

The rich, he said, will be asked to pay more, and more money will be redistributed "to allow France to pick itself up."

Unlike Sarkozy rallies, where a preppier crowd often hoists tricolor French flags in abundance, the Rennes gathering mostly brought out young students and retirees.

His campaign has been textbook: He launched a 60-point platform months ago, hewing to many Socialist tenets. At times, he comes across as stiff and cautious, but has made no big gaffes.

Hollande's biggest challenge has been to try to project presidential caliber. While his pedigree is top-tier as a graduate of the Ecole National d'Administration — the French breeding-ground school for both political and corporate elites like former President Jacques Chirac — he has never run a government ministry.

Under his tenure as party boss, the Socialists suffered one of the biggest shockers in recent French political history: Lionel Jospin lost the first round to far-right nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 presidential race, later won by Chirac. Hollande calls it the biggest blow of his career and one he won't soon forget.

Hollande was born in the Normandy city of Rouen, the son of a social-worker mother who he admired and a doctor father who backed the political right and whose ideas "forced me to construct my ideas," Hollande writes in his campaign-season book entitled "Changer de Destin" (Change Destiny).

On Les Guignols de l'Info, a satirical fake news show with puppets, Hollande has long been depicted as innocent, wide-eyed and soft-in-the-middle — with a dopey, hollow laugh.

But in the Sarkozy era, he's tapped into frustration about unemployment and perceived economic inequality. While Sarkozy, a former hard-charging Interior Minister, has trotted out his longtime formula of playing up his security credentials, Hollande has focused on what polls show worry the French most: joblessness and the economy.

The body language at the lectern — where both Sarkozy and Hollande can excel — speaks volumes. Hollande often leans on his elbows, or flails his arms about in the air, and laughs. Sarkozy cuts the air in crisp movements, and is seemingly less about engaging his audience than displaying resoluteness.

People who have known Hollande for years say his human touch and his assiduousness — often unseen — at the ground game of politics set him apart.

"What you notice most about Francois is that he's well-balanced, has integrity, and feels good about himself," said Frederic Bourcier, the Socialist Party's First Secretary in the region around Rennes, alluding to the image of Sarkozy as hasty, tempestuous and aggressive. "We need something new."

He also said Hollande had reworked himself, with an image makeover ahead of the campaign that included trimming his midsection, and that could serve as an inspiration for the country.

"This guy is tailor-made for France nowadays," Bourcier said.

Eds: Cecile Brisson contributed from Rennes.