France's Hollande bids to lock in campaign lead

January 22, 2012 - 1:45 PM
France Presidential Election

French socialist party candidate for the 2012 French presidential election Francois Hollande gestures during a debate on the topic "France, reasons for hope", as part of Hollande's campaign visit, Thursday Jan. 19, 2012, in Nantes, western France. (AP Photo/David Vincent)

LE BOURGET, France (AP) — The Socialist candidate for France's presidency attempted to consolidate his front-runner status on Sunday with a pledge to pull French troops out of Afghanistan and to combat international financial speculators that he blamed for much of the country's problems.

In a combative speech in front of thousands of loudly applauding supporters, Francois Hollande also promised to cut his own pay by 30 percent if elected and sought to attract young voters by asking to be judged on how much their lot improves over his first term.

Hollande, a bespectacled 57-year-old career politician, has extended his lead in polls over French President Nicolas Sarkozy, his expected rival in two-round elections in April and May. But he's virtually unknown outside France, and critics say he has limited international experience to head this nuclear-armed nation.

"Mobilize, and in three months we will make the left win and take France forward," Hollande said at the end of his nearly 90-minute speech in an exhibition hall outside Paris.

Hollande said that if elected, he would decide by the end of May on when to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan.

Sarkozy said last week that he is considering to bring back French troops from Afghanistan and suspended the country's training mission there after an Afghan soldier killed four French servicemen on Friday.

Shouting and waving his fist, Hollande said he would rein in banks with a law separating their loan-making businesses from their "speculative" operations.

"Who is my adversary? It is the world of finance," Hollande said to cheers from the audience.

He pledged to eliminate stock options and to tighten regulations on bonuses, as well as pass a tax on financial transactions.

After sustained criticism in recent weeks over a lack of specifics in his program, Hollande unveiled a wide-range of new promises in his speech Sunday, while leaving details of their cost and how they will be financed unspecified.

Among the pledges were promises to shift greater power to France's parliament, more decentralization, and an end to presidential interference in naming the heads of state television and radio. Hollande also promised to give foreigners the right to vote in local elections, a move the Socialist party has long sought as a way of better integrating France's large immigrant communities.

He also promised to balance France's budget by the end of his first term in 2017 — one year later than France's current pledge to its European partners.

Noticeably absent from Hollande's speech was any mention of his party's last major legislative achievement, the controversial 35-hour workweek introduced in 2000.

The candidate also refrained from mentioning Sarkozy by name. However in a thinly veiled attack on Sarkozy's much derided tendency toward flash that led many to call him "president bling-bling," he said "I like people, when others are fascinated by money."

Hollande also sought to burnish his European credentials, pledging to work with Germany for "a Europe of growth, solidarity and protection."

"I know Europe has faults, but is our common heritage, it needs to be defended," Hollande said.

Hollande is an affable, soft-spoken and witty former longtime party boss who was chosen as the Socialist candidate in a primary last October.

He won the job after the most anticipated Socialist front-runner, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, had his is political career all but ended when he was jailed briefly in May in the United States after a New York hotel maid accused him of rape. Prosecutors later dropped the case, but Strauss-Kahn's reputation and presidential ambitions crashed.

Hollande has so far pitched his campaign on representing the anti-Sarkozy. When asked "Why you?" in an interview in October, Hollande first answered: "Because I can beat Nicolas Sarkozy."

"He's a man who has always been brave and sincere in his political expression, who always told the truth, as opposed to some (other) candidates on the left who cede to the temptation to promise too much," said Antoine Rouillard-Perain, a 22-year-old Parisian.

"Some people think that the campaign lacks dynamism, but it's not true," he said. "There's three months f campaigning ahead. The campaign begins now."

Hollande is known as good on the stump and a quick-witted debater, and has built his reputation as a manager and consensus-builder more than as a visionary.

He's never run a government ministry and during his tenure the party was weakened and badly fractured.

A lawmaker in the National Assembly and the governor of the central Correze region — the same political backyard as conservative former President Jacques Chirac — Hollande led the Socialist Party from 1997 to 2008.

During that time the Socialists suffered two devastating presidential campaign defeats, including the 2002 election when Prime Minister Lionel Jospin embarrassingly failed to qualify for the presidential runoff. Hollande's former partner Segolene Royal — the mother of his four children — was defeated by Sarkozy in the last presidential elections in 2007.

Hollande's program calls for reversing cuts in education introduced by Sarkozy's government, a new work contract to encourage companies to hire young people and focus on reducing France's high state budget deficit. It says little about international affairs, other than calling for an unspecified "pact" with Germany, the EU's economic engine, to spur on the now-troubled European project.

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Greg Keller can be reached at http://twitter.com/Greg_Keller