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Meet Monsieur Caramel Pudding, France's next president

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Francois Hollande after a campaign speech in Toulouse, France, on Wednesday.

Updated at 1:40 a.m. on May 7: France crowned Francois Hollande as its first Socialist president in nearly two decades in an election on Sunday.

Originally published on May 4: Understated, bespectacled and often clad in dull gray suits, he is nicknamed "Flamby" -- after a popular brand of caramel pudding. Meet Francois Hollande, the likely next president of France.

Largely unknown outside his own country, he is ahead in opinion polls by five to 10 points against the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and is poised to become France’s first Socialist president since Francois Mitterrand, whom he served as an economic adviser.

The 57-year-old owes his candidacy to the downfall of the former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who had been the runaway favorite for socialists until sex scandals ended his professional and political career.

However, in a feisty TV debate Wednesday with Sarkozy, Hollande showed voters he is far from characterless.

During the debate, which lasted nearly three hours, Hollande claimed Sarkozy, 57, was using the global economic crisis as an excuse for not delivering on his promises.

"It's never your fault,” Hollande said. “You always have a scapegoat. 'It's not me -- it's the crisis that hit me.'"

Left-wing mom, right-wing dad
Born into a middle-class Catholic family in the city of Rouen, Normandy, Hollande’s views were shaped mostly by his social worker mother; he often disagreed with his father’s far-right views.

The young Hollande took an academic path well-trod by many French politicians, attending the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences-Po) and later the École Nationale d'Administration (ENA), both in France’s version of the Ivy League, which produced seven of the past 12 prime ministers, according to The Economist.

He graduated from ENA in 1980, along with Segolene Royal, the woman who would become his partner of more than 20 years, mother of his four children and Socialist presidential candidate in 2007. That year, the two called it quits and Royal went on to lose to Sarkozy in the run-off.

Sarkozy fails to floor Hollande in France election television debate

Hollande and Royal never married, and for the past few years his partner has been French political journalist Valerie Trierweiler. She has said she expects to remain a journalist and a working mother if she becomes France’s first lady.

His love life may have been complicated, but Hollande's commitment to politics has been constant, and he proudly puts it on display in a campaign video posted on his website that touts his 30 years in politics. Set to a piano soundtrack, the roughly three-minute clip looks at “the victories, the defeats and the historic moments.”

“Nothing was given to me, nothing was entrusted to me, nothing was assigned to me,” Hollande is heard saying. “Everything I have, I took by right.”

'A rather dangerous man'
He now wants to take the presidency, and some worry about what that may mean for the future of France and Europe in general.

“Mr. Hollande evinces a deep, anti-business attitude,” writes Britain’s pro-business The Economist, adding that his hostility to change could undermine the Eurozone’s determination to pursue painful reforms that could help save the euro. “That makes him a rather dangerous man.”

Despite The Economist’s anxieties, the election is more of a referendum on how Sarkozy and his government have handled the economic crisis.

With unemployment at a 12-year high and France stripped of its AAA status by one credit rating agency, the Bank of France offered no solace for Sarkozy. Figures for growth were revised downward -- news that Hollande could benefit from, as he promises to forge a new economic direction for Europe with a drive to spend and thus promote growth.

This plan is in stark contrast to Sarkozy’s policy of financial discipline and austerity, a solution to the financial crisis also championed by Germany’s Angela Merkel.

Despite his promises of less austerity, Hollande has pledged to balance the budget in 2017, Bloomberg reported, while Sarkozy promised to reach the target a year earlier.

"We will keep to the fixed plan of reducing our public deficit to 3 percent [of GDP] in 2013," Hollande said in an interview with La Tribune. "It's France's word."

One of the ways he plans to achieve this is through higher taxes, including a 75 percent rate on income over 1 million euros ($1.3 million).

Some analysts, however, worry that weak growth will derail his goal and think Hollande should turn to sensible cuts in spending instead.

"People voting for Sarkozy are thinking about somebody who can lead in Europe and handle the crisis,” Dominique Reynie, professor at the Sciences Po, told Reuters. “Those who vote for Hollande are thinking about their own purchasing power and social well-being."

Serge Raffy, chief-editor of the French newspaper Nouvel Observateur and author of “Francois Hollande: A secret itinerary,” noted there was little enthusiasm and passion in “desperately rational” Hollande’s candidacy. 

“At least it didn’t cause illusions from the outset,” Raffy writes. “Francois Hollande will not disappoint if he wins. He can only surprise us.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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