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PARIS: Few men could be more different than Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy.

Bespectacled and academic-mannered, Hollande, the front-running Socialist in France's April-May presidential vote, has vowed to be a consensus-builder, a "normal president" in contrast to the hyperactive Sarkozy.

Playing on the French public's disappointment and antagonism toward Sarkozy's flamboyant style, Hollande has hammered at the incumbent's record, with the vote turning into a referendum on Sarkozy's personality.

"The next head of state must be the opposite of Nicolas Sarkozy," Hollande has said.

But recent weeks have also seen Hollande's weaknesses his lack of experience, his bland image, his ideological "softness" exposed as Sarkozy has ratcheted up his campaign.

Hollande, 57, remains the frontrunner in the race with polls showing him with a comfortable lead between 53 and 55 percent of votes for the May 6 second round of the presidential vote.

But Sarkozy has overtaken Hollande in voter intentions for the April 22 first round, as Hollande faces a tough challenge on his left flank from Communist-backed candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

A protege of modernising former European Commission chairman Jacques Delors, Hollande is of the generation groomed under the last, and only previous, Socialist president, Francois Mitterrand, who left office in 1995.

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

In 1981, as Mitterrand swept to power, Hollande challenged later French president Jacques Chirac to represent the south-central Correze region in parliament but lost.

Chirac retains affection for his old rival and even said he would vote for Hollande, though he later passed off his remark as a joke.

Hollande 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, whom he defeated in a US-style primary for the candidacy in October.

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.

Hollande is now in a relationship with political journalist Valerie Trierweiler, who reportedly encouraged him to lose 10 kilogrammes (22 pounds) of unpresidential body fat and adopt thinner-framed glasses for the campaign.

Having never run a ministry or held other top roles, much has been made of Hollande's lack of government experience. Even in his own camp, critics during the primary accused him of being "wishy-washy" and unable to take decisions.

Jospin has sought to address the concerns, saying Hollande was "widely involved in all decision making" during his tenure.

Hollande has presented a classic Socialist platform for the vote, with promises of boosting taxes on the rich, increasing social spending and creating thousands of state jobs.

He has worried some with declarations that the "world of finance" is his "enemy" and vows to re-negotiate a hard-fought eurozone fiscal pact, but experts say Hollande would likely be a more pragmatic leader.

If he does move into the Elysee Palace after the vote, Hollande's rise will have as much to do with circumstances as his own political acumen, experts say.

He only emerged as the candidate after former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then considered the favourite to defeat Sarkozy, was engulfed in a scandal last May over allegations of attempted rape by a New York hotel maid.

"Hollande's nomination was more than anything else an incredible stroke of luck," said political analyst Frederic Sawicki.

Copyright AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2012

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