He cut an unlikely figure as he stood in a corridor of the Bercy Omnisports Arena in Paris last Sunday, preparing to follow in the footsteps of megastars such as Madonna and Kylie Minogue in front of 22,000 chanting fans.
Indeed, with his smart grey suit, spectacles and earnest features, he might have passed as a bank manager. But this was Francois Hollande, 57, the man who has spent three decades waiting in the wings for his moment in the spotlight.
Polls predict this plodding, provincial politician — who has never held ministerial office, has few discernible beliefs and is renowned for his caution — will this weekend become president of France at a time of economic and political peril for Europe.
But if he appears dull on paper, there is a racy back story to Monsieur Hollande. It involves the mother of his four children, the politician Segolene Royal, with whom he lived for 30 years but from whom he separated acrimoniously six years ago, when it emerged that he was having an affair with a journalist named Valerie Trierweiler.
It was Royal who ran for President as the Socialist candidate at the last general election. Now, it is her former partner Hollande who is hoping to lead France, with his new lover — nicknamed The Rottweiler — at his side as First Lady.
But it is not his intriguing love life that has been winning over voters in recent months — rather his resolutely Left-wing rhetoric.
Before stepping on stage to speak to his adoring Socialist Party faithful, waiting since the days when Ronald Reagan was in the White House to win back the presidency, M. Hollande offered a few words in English to the Daily Mail.
‘We will win, we will win,’ he said, grinning broadly, before going on to deliver his campaign speech in his usual stilted style, declaring his intention to hammer the rich and protect France from the perfidies of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ capitalism. (This from a man whose official salaries and allowances provide him with a package of nearly £200,000 a year, funding his £1.5?million Paris flat and Cote d’Azur holiday home — although he has said that he will slash the presidential salary if elected.)
So who precisely is Francois Hollande, presenting himself as Monsieur Normal in contrast with the firecracker presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, whose supercharged style, supermodel spouse and super-rich friends so alienated his nation?
Both friends and foes say he is a warm character with a ready smile. But the friendly face hides a fierce determination that has seen him slim down, mould his image and taken him to the brink of power. ‘His critics commit the same mistake all the time — they underestimate him,’ says Serge Raffy, his biographer.
Hollande makes much of his roots in Rouen, the dull Normandy city that reflects his desired provincial image as the hard-working son of a doctor father and social worker mother.
In reality, the family lived in the upmarket Bois-Guillaume ‘heights’ of Rouen — until forced to move as a result of his father Georges’s extreme Right-wing politics.
Georges was exposed as a close supporter of a former Vichy official who stood for president in a campaign managed by Jean-Marie Le Pen, later infamous as the Holocaust-denying founder of the Front National.
The ripples from this revelation led Georges to sell the family home and his clinic in 1968, when his son was 14. He retrained as an estate agent and moved to Neuilly-sur-Seine, the Parisian suburb that is Sarkozy’s fiefdom.
The move was so rapid his father binned his young son’s childhood possessions, including a cherished collection of toy cars.
Such a background left its mark. His biographer Raffy traces Hollande’s dislike of confrontation, his desire to compromise and his self-deflecting humour back to a childhood need to avoid his father’s anger and the brutal corporal punishment meted out at his strict school.
‘Contrary to what his detractors believe, the man is neither cunning nor cynical,’ wrote Raffy. ‘He is simply in a posture of avoidance.’
He was, however, very close to his mother, Nicole, who stood as a Socialist candidate in Cannes in 2008. She died the following year, and Hollande has told friends he will dedicate his victory to her if he wins.
After moving to Paris, the preppy Neuilly-sur-Seine Lycee propelled the hard-working teenager into the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), which churns out the elite cliques dominating French politics, business and society.
In 1974, he spent the summer in the U.S. after winning a business school grant, driving from New York to San Francisco as Richard Nixon’s presidency crumbled amid the Watergate scandal.
He studied the invention of fast food, concentrating on McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken, those symbols of globalisation — and concluded they would invade France, too.