It was at the 2010 annual meeting of World Economic Forum in Davos that I understood how concave a man Mr Nicolas Sarkozy was — with neither style, nor substance, and arrogance on a Gallic scale. Listening to him giving an opening speech, he sounded vague and incoherent. Most of his speech reminded the movers and shakers of the world sitting in the audience of a particularly odious wine waiter in an awful French restaurant who flew into a blaring rage when informed about the quality of service.
By the time the speech was all over, Mr. Sarkozy had proposed absolutely nothing new, and the assembled magnates were happy it was over. As the sixth president of the Fifth Republic, Mr Sarkozy was a restless upstart, from the very outset. It almost appeared as though he suffered from ‘hyperthyroidism' all through his term in office. Perhaps never before had a serving French President been so unpopular.
From telling Mr David Cameron that he had ‘missed a good opportunity to shut up', to loudly and tactlessly commenting on the enormity of cheese Chancellor Merkel consumed at one of the conference dinners, uncanny Mr Sarkozy's mutterings have cast a shadow over his Presidency. During the course of his ascent to the highest office, President Sarkozy has acquired more than a few nicknames as a result of his unpredictable behaviour. As Mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, one of the wealthiest communes of France in the 1980s, the young Nicolas Sarkozy acquired the nickname “super cop” for his tough law-and-order agenda, and love of being seen with the police.
He also earned for himself the nickname “Little Napoleon”, after it came to light that in a private conversation with the US president, Barack Obama, he called the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a “liar”. The incensed French leader was branded the ‘new de Gaulle' after claiming the British can't comprehend Europe because they are ‘an island'. Also, at a Brussels summit, Mr Sarkozy publicly snubbed Mr Cameron by turning away as the Prime Minister offered his hand in friendship.
French voters decided some time ago that they are fed up with Mr Sarkozy. And this week, the French president's re-election prospects are in question — thanks to his run-off opponent, who emerged from the shadows and could become the most improbable victor. Who is Mr François Hollande? Just who is the man threatening to unseat the flamboyant, controversial Mr Sarkozy, and what are his plans for France?
He is from the south-central Correze region, once represented by two-time conservative president Jacques Chirac.
Mr François Hollande is a Member of Parliament but has never served as a government minister. It was the mighty fall from grace of the party's leading candidate, former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, that catapulted him into the presidential race.
The next French president will assume office on May 17. If all goes well, the Camp David summit of G8 on May 18 this month may see a new, sober, bespectacled French head of State, Mr Hollande, sharing the table with some of the most powerful people in the world, in place of Mr Sarkozy, who will face a contest for the top job in France, this weekend.
What then, should the world expect from France, and how should they react to President Hollande? We can expect no major changes as far as foreign policy is concerned. Secondly, the French Socialist has said he would emphasise economic growth over austerity, even if it meant the need to take on new debt.
He plans to balance the budget just a year later than Mr Sarkozy's budgets would, paying for his priorities with measures such as a 75 per cent tax rate on millionaires.
That position is the utterly opposite of the policy Mr Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have adopted, encouraging EU countries to cut spending. Further, Mr Hollande has pledged to pull all of France's troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2012. That's a full year ahead of the time-table set by Sarkozy.
As President, Mr Hollande may therefore, represent both stability on essentials and, an occasion to usher in new ideas in a challenging global scenario.
In France, no significant value is attached to conjugal or parental status. It is not considered an obstacle to political ambitions, however high an office it may be, as long as leaders meet a basic level of decorum and principles. Unlike in India, the personal lives of people attract neither praise nor criticism.
Yet another French exception — if Mr Hollande is sworn in as president on May 17, First Lady Valerie will not have the same last name. Her three children from an earlier marriage will be part of the family feasts at the Elysee palace, along with the four children Mr Hollande had with Ms Segolene Royal. It is hard to imagine seeing this anywhere else but in Europe.
(The author is former Europe Director, CII and lives in Cologne, Germany. firstname.lastname@example.org)