PARIS (Reuters) - Francois Hollande, the man who plans to be France’s “Mr Normal” president, has stopped going to work by scooter but told voters he will still take the train and do the family shopping as head of state - at least, he jokes, “if the fridge is empty”.
As soon as he ended his 15-minute victory speech on Sunday, he was whisked away under police escort, underlining the limits to “normality” that security will impose. But the declaration of intent was part of the strategy that swept him to power.
The 57-year-old Socialist has spent more than a year on the campaign trail, building his stature, finetuning his tax-and-spend manifesto, and vowing to do away with the brash style that earned Nicolas Sarkozy the nickname “president bling bling”.
In character, his deliberately low-key victory speech eschewed loft rhetoric and hinted at hard times ahead.
“I want to be judged on two commitments: to justice and to youth,” Hollande said, promising to invest more in education and putting young people back to work.
In a race marked more by fatigue with Sarkozy than fervor for Hollande, his few concessions to fashion were to trade his jam-jar spectacles for designer glasses and go on a strict diet that deprived him of chocolate cake and a double chin.
His partner Valerie Trierweiler also wants to stick to a simple life. She relishes the already too-rare moments when the two share dinner on the sofa in front of the television, even if, she says, he tends to use too much butter in his cooking.
She says she will happily play “second fiddle as first lady” but she wants to remain a working mum, in part to pay for the upkeep of three teenage sons that the twice-divorced journalist had before moving in with Hollande.
Hollande previously lived for a quarter of a century with Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate for president who lost to Sarkozy in 2007. Royal, with whom he had four children, announced her split from him weeks after her poll defeat.
Hollande, born in the middle-sized northwestern city of Rouen, where he attended a private Catholic school, never married Royal and is not married to Trierweiler, which may cause minor protocol headaches when it comes to state visits.
Economically, Hollande says there is no reason to subject France to drastic Greek-style austerity and he will try to get the rest of Europe, starting with German leader Angela Merkel, to commit in tandem to pro-growth strategies.
He has never held a ministerial post during 30 years in politics, knows few world leaders personally, and until recently was perhaps better known abroad as Royal’s partner.
However, Hollande has become something of an international curiosity since he dared to challenge what he branded a recipe for “endless austerity” driven by Berlin.
His platform relies on tax rises, mainly on the rich and companies, to fund spending on schools, state-aided job creation and letting those who started work at 18 retire at 60, while simultaneously working towards balancing the budget by 2017.
He is no radical leftist, despite vowing to slap a 75 percent rate of income tax on annual earnings above 1 million euros ($1.31 million). That will hurt some 3,000 people but is more symbolic than effective in terms of revenue.
The challenges facing the country, rather than his person, was the focus of the speech he delivered on Sunday in Tulle, a town 500 km south of Paris in the heart of his rural political fiefdom of the past 30 years.
Beyond the fact that Sarkozy was an easy target after years of economic crisis, Hollande’s strongest selling point may be that he bends with the wind but has never broken. One of his nicknames is “marsh reed” (“roseau” in French).
Few took Hollande seriously when he entered the race in early 2011 while former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was hot favorite to represent the Socialists. He was catapulted into pole position only after Strauss-Kahn was arrested in New York on sex assault charges, since dropped, last May.
Less charitable Socialists dubbed Hollande “Flanby” after a brand of wobbly egg-custard pudding.
He surprised many in a near three-hour TV duel with Sarkozy before Sunday’s vote by more than holding his own against the conservative president, a formidable debater whose reputation for bulldozing his opponents off the stage is legend.
Hollande made the most of his image as an affable, contagiously witty politician at a time when Sarkozy’s hard-hitting energy has lost its magic.
The Socialist says symbols matter and has promised to cut presidential and ministerial salaries by 30 percent as his first act to show the elite can tighten its belt in tough times.
He has promised that the head of state will no longer enjoy legal immunity while in office for suspected offences preceding his election, unlike the blanket protection that exists now.
Hollande said he would like to travel by train rather than presidential jet when possible, even if his train would have to be tailed by a jet in any case for security reasons.
Hollande’s mother, a social worker who was very close to him and died in 2009, adored France’s last left-wing president, Francois Mitterrand. His father, an eye and ear doctor, dabbled in far-right politics in the 1960s, opposing France’s pullout from Algeria.
Trierweiler, interviewed by womens’ magazine Femme Actuelle days before Sunday’s ballot, confided that one of his quirks in domestic life is that he never closes the door behind him.
She even managed to turn that to his advantage, saying: “He never closes the door to anyone, as he has nothing to hide.” ($1 = 0.7625 euros)
Reporting By Brian Love; Editing by Paul Taylor