Accidental president rides anti-Sarkozy wave

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Just one year ago, the idea that Francois Hollande would become France's next president would have been laughed at — even by some of his political allies.

Hollande had long been sidelined from France's national affairs. Longtime friends and colleagues compared him to a jiggly pudding, or the captain of a pedal boat — a way to suggest he had no political spine. He led the Socialist Party through 11 years — years fraught with divisions and two consecutive presidential defeats.

That was before the "Affaire DSK," the New York sex scandal that engulfed Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the man France's Socialists were counting on to be their champion in the election battle with incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.

Now, Hollande will have to show the French, and the world, that he brings the talents of a statesman to the table, not just the fact that he's not Sarkozy.

Hollande, 57, won the presidency in a campaign that reflected his personality — slow and steady. Like the tortoise in Aesop's fable, he managed to overtake the hyperactive hare in front of him and win the race without ever igniting passions.

And after a strong performance in his only debate with the tough-tongued Sarkozy, Hollande's looking ready to slip right into his new role as head of state.

"The change ... starts now," he said in his victory speech.

After a bitter campaign and five years under the often-divisive Sarkozy, Hollande promised to be the "president of everyone" and not just those who voted for him.

"There is just one France ... one single nation, united in the same destiny," Hollande said.

He promised to reduce the budget deficit and preserve the French social model, and said youth and justice are his two top commitments.

Affable, soft-spoken and witty, the president-elect has built his reputation as a manager and consensus-builder rather than as a visionary. He's never held high government office, despite a 30-year career in French politics. An image makeover during the campaign — slimming down and donning more fashionable suits and eyeglasses — was a bid for greater presidential gravitas.

A high point in this transformation came during the televised debate May 2. Hollande teed off on a presenter's question about what kind of president he'd be, tipping back in his chair, folding his arms, and launching into a litany of points starting with the phrase: "As president of the Republic, I ..."

The gutsy performance was one of the most talked about moments of the rough-and-tumble debate, and went a long way to making Hollande look presidential in the eyes of the French.

His girlfriend, Valerie Trierweiler, a well-dressed and impeccably coiffed political journalist, is also seen as an asset to the presidential ticket.

Hollande promises to be a "normal" president, signaling a dramatic change of tone both at home and abroad for the French president after five years in which Sarkozy ruffled feathers with his aggressive, brash personality.

Sarkozy tried to turn this claim against Hollande, saying his "normality" was insufficient to take on the broad economic, political and social challenges facing France.

A majority of French voters disagreed Sunday. Hollande will have five years to prove his win was no accident.