The NS Profile: François Hollande

The French Socialist presidential candidate was once the invisible man of French politics, overshado

Three decades ago, a French politician flew to Washington to take part in a left-wing conference. The editor of the New York Times turned down the suggestion that an interview or news report on the visit was worth the space. Five months later François Mitterrand was president of the fourth-biggest economy and third-largest nuclear power in the world.

The provincial capriciousness of the Anglo-American media in ignoring cross-Channel politics hasn't changed. Today runs a story on the most minute aspects of the Republican primaries almost every morning, yet the presidency of France matters more to us.

If all the opinion polls are to be believed, by May France will have a new president. François Hollande wants a different Europe. He believes in politics that David Cameron and Nick Clegg despise. Just as Mitterrand's arrival in 1981 placed a Continental roadblock in the way of Reagan's and Thatcher's neoliberal steamroller, the election of Hollande presents a challenge to the 1930s-style austerity policies designed by Treasury officials which, the FT's Chris Giles has noted, are now Britain's biggest export across Europe. It remains a paradox that while the British political class has never been so Euro­sceptic, eurozone countries are copying the British policy of zero growth and cuts widely.

So, it may be time for some understanding of who Hollande is. I must declare a personal interest: I have counted him as a friend for 15 years. There is no exact translation into French of that all-purpose English adjective "nice", but if there was one, he'd be the nicest person I have ever met at the top of French politics. Two warnings. First, although every opinion poll and most conversations with French friends across the political spectrum put Hollande as the winner, the odd French system of running elections over two rounds can produce shocks such as the narrow defeat of the Socialist Lionel Jospin by the anti-Semitic racist Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the National Front (FN) in 2002.

Second, Voltaire might have been thinking of Sarkozy when he wrote, "Cet animal est très méchant:/Quand on l'attaque il se défend" – which was translated by Nabokov as "This beast is very mean: in fact/It will fight back, when it's attacked." Sarkozy is a political beast of the highest order, never so dangerous as when his back is against the wall.

Rapid reaction

In 2002, it was the candidate for the Socialist Party (PS) who was defeated by the extreme right. A decade later, it is Sarkozy who is looking over his shoulder at Marine Le Pen, who inherited the leadership of her father's party. The 2012 FN is more of a Ukip with a strong element of Geert Wilders's Muslim hatred and 21st-century anti-globalisation nationalism than the classic Holocaust denier of old. She is hovering just below Sarkozy in the opinion polls. Among les fonctionnaires – the armies of public employees in France – Sarkozy has 9 per cent of voting intentions, compared to 30 per cent for Marine.

Sarkozy entered office in 2007 on the promise of renewal. He put young Muslim or black women into his cabinet, as well as such leading figures of the left as Bernard Kouchner. All have left and Sarkozy's promises to get France back to work have failed.

Hollande comes to London this month. He will see Ed Miliband, who hopes that an Hollande victory will help boost Labour, but his main purpose is to trawl for votes among the 400,000 French citizens living in the city. Sarkozy has created 11 new constituencies for French citizens living abroad. Axelle Lemaire, an able young Socialist who lives in London and worked for a Labour MP, is running for a seat covering Ireland, the British Isles and the Baltic and Nordic states. The votes of French citizens living in Kensington may decide who governs France until 2017 – Hollande or Sarkozy.

So who is this inconnu who might become the next monarch of France? Hollande is 57 and comes from a staunch Catholic bourgeois family in Rouen. This is Madame Bovary land – where conventional behaviour, living by petty rules, and suppression of passion and desire turned the regions of northern France into the dullest area of Europe. The escape route was hard academic achievement. Hollande graduated from the École Nationale d'Administration, where the French civil-service elite are trained, in the same year as Dominique de Villepin, later Chirac's prime minister, and the woman who became his own partner and mother to his four children, Ségolène Royal.

She, too, came from a rigid Catholic family (hers was military) and the couple's reaction to their upbringing was to reject marriage and to move left as both became protégés of Mitterrand in the 1980s. Royal was given swift promotion and with her political talent and flair for self-publicity she became a minister in successive Socialist governments. Hollande, however, went off to win, lose and then win again a parliamentary seat in middle-of-nowhere rural France where Chirac had his political base. As his former aide Nicolas Ravaille told me: "Most Socialist bigwigs want a safe seat as close to Paris as possible. François went off not just to campaign and win a difficult seat but in doing so he built a real base in regional France."

The French right is trying to depict Hollande as lacking in ministerial experience, which is as meaningful as the same charge laid against Blair, Cameron or Clegg. In fact, he may have an advantage, as he served for more than a decade as general secretary of the party, getting to know the complex mosaic of PS adherence.

Hollande avoided both the personality battles and hard ideological alignments that are a speciality of French socialism. He dodged the crude anti-Blairism and disdain for the success of New Labour over three elections that were fashionable on the French left. Unlike most French Socialists, he does not find it an insult to be labelled a social democrat and he endorses the German and Nordic tradition of pragmatic leftism. He is pro-European and hated the split in the PS when leading figures such as Laurent Fabius and Arnaud Montebourg supported the No campaign in the 2005 referendum on the constitutional treaty. Betraying the long Mitterrand and Delors tradition of pro-European socialism made the Socialists unelectable at the end of Chirac's 12 years as president.

His party base helped him to survive the break-up of his relationship with Royal (he has found a new partner, a TV journalist) and her rise to become the PS presidential candidate in 2007. Four years later, Hollande had carefully prepared his bid. It was handed to him by Dominique Strauss-Kahn's scandal, but DSK concedes now that Hollande might well have beaten him in the primaries. The Socialists, much of the French media and most people I have spoken to during visits to France this year think that Hollande, the man whom no one used to notice, could topple Sarkozy.

For much of his presidency Sarkozy has mocked Chancellor Angela Merkel openly, complaining that he cannot imagine spending a weekend with her and saying: "Mrs Merkel goes shopping in supermarkets. I have never been shopping in my life." Now he has asked Merkel to campaign for him to explain why a rise in VAT and cuts are the best policy. He might as well ask George Osborne.

Hollande started his campaign slowly. Before the New Year, complaints mounted that he was making no impression, but last month he transformed his candidature with an explosive speech in Le Bourget that rang around France. Lyrical oratory matters to the French. It requires talent to command and enthuse 25,000 people warmed up by Yannick Noah, the tennis star-turned-France's most popular singer, and make sense at the same time to millions watching at home. Hollande showed he has it.

The speech was Blairist as he blasted the antisocial hooligans who torch cars on the poor public housing estates that elite France does not know exists. But it was post-New Labour as he combined this theme of law and order – previously shunned by the French left as authoritarian and illiberal – with a ferocious attack on deregulated money-power that destroyed centre-left governments in Britain, Spain and Sweden, where uncritical worship of globalisation disconnected the left from those for whom nation, state and family remain the principal points of reference.

Big money in handcuffs

John Kerr, Britain's best-known retired diplomat, now in the Lords, told me Hollande's was the most exciting speech by a political leader that he had read in years. It set France abuzz and was followed by a television debate in which Hollande wiped out Alain Juppé, Sarkozy's foreign minister – one of the smartest debaters on the centre right.

If Hollande wins, it will not necessarily be a boost for Labour, any more than Mitterrand's 1981 victory helped Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock. Hollande has said that he will not sign up to the right-wing orthodoxy espoused by Cam­eron and the banking class's fellow-travelling conservatives now in charge in Europe.

“François wants Europe to put big money under control. The left must develop policies to support global social justice so that workers get a share of the wealth they create," his campaign manager, Pierre Moscovici, explained to me, adding that a President Hollande "will reinforce the International Labour Organisation". Hollande is more Attlee or Truman than Obama or Blair; he has watched French politics play itself out at the highest level for nearly 30 years. The British left may have to start learning French once again, a decade after a Labour education minister abolished compulsory foreign-language learning in our schools.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and a former minister for Europe