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Originally published April 8, 2012 at 5:56 PM | Page modified April 8, 2012 at 6:05 PM

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Socialist Hollande appears to be headed for presidency of France

The man the polls say has the best shot at becoming France's next president wants to hire thousands more teachers, renegotiate Europe's expensive, hard-won bailout package for Greece, and reassess his country's role in both Afghanistan and NATO.

The Associated Press

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RENNES, France — The man the polls say has the best shot at becoming France's next president wants to hire thousands more teachers, renegotiate Europe's expensive, hard-won bailout package for Greece, and reassess his country's role in both Afghanistan and NATO.

But Socialist Francois Hollande appeals less for his platform than for his persona: The innocuous, intellectual everyman is many things that conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy is not.

Hollande, 57, is tapping into a French population wary of international finance, weary of Sarkozy's outsized personality and eager for change. While countries in struggling Europe shift to the right, France may hand the presidency to the left for the first time in a generation, with repercussions for the Continent's direction and France's future.

Hollande isn't the only leftist making headlines in this campaign: Firebrand far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon has drawn some of the biggest crowds so far at rallies blanketed in red communist flags. Melenchon, with the charisma that the mainstream Hollande lacks, is complicating the political calculus.

French voters kick off the balloting in two weeks, with 10 candidates from across the political spectrum facing off in a first-round vote April 22 that will winnow the race to two.

While Hollande has slipped a little in recent weeks, polls have suggested for months that he would win the expected two-man finale against Sarkozy on May 6 by a broad margin.

The economic crisis in Europe has felled many governments in recent years. A Hollande victory could break from a recent rightward trend in the Continent and put France out of step with other big European countries such as Germany, Spain, Britain and Poland — all run by center-right or conservative leaders. Italy, hobbled by a debt crisis, is led by technocrat Mario Monti.

Some of Hollande's major proposals could raise eyebrows abroad. As governments enact austerity measures elsewhere in Europe, he wants to hire thousands more teachers. He wants to scrap the Greek bailout package led by Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has pledged to pull all French combat troops out of Afghanistan by year-end, and says that pledge would be the first thing he tells allies at a NATO summit in Chicago in May.

For many in France, the time seems ripe for a return to a Socialist president: The only one in postwar France was François Mitterrand, from 1981 to 1995; throw-the-bums-out has been an election theme in Europe; Sarkozy, in part for reasons of personal style, has been unpopular for years; and the financial crisis and debt crises in Europe have emboldened the left.

His advisers insist that Hollande is no old-school Socialist, but a social democrat wary of the economic challenges coming from 21st-century powers such as China and India.

When he speaks to the French faithful, Hollande's class-warfare style rhetoric — inveighing against the financial world that he calls his "adversary" and demanding justice for the underclass — often draws cheers.

Hollande, who once quipped "I don't like the rich" on TV, got a recent boost in the polls after he announced a proposal to slap a 75 percent tax on income beyond the first 1 million euros ($1.3 million) earned each year.

Hollande on Wednesday drew thousands who spilled out of two warehouses at a convention center near the city of Rennes, in the heart of the left-leaning region of Brittany.

The highlight was Hollande's appearance alongside Segolene Royal, his longtime partner and mother of his four children. Royal, who is also Socialist, was the party's nominee in 2007 — and lost handily to Sarkozy. Hollande and Royal split not long after that election.

On stage, Hollande and Royal appeared just seconds together, but the message — party unity — was clear. His new romantic partner, political journalist Valerie Trierweiler, looked on from a seat in the crowd.

Hollande claimed that Sarkozy, who took office promising economic growth, fiscal responsibility and competitiveness in France, had failed on all — and promised more responsible Socialist leadership.

"People say to us, 'Watch out, the left is back, it's going to empty the (state) coffers.' It's already happened! 'Watch out, if the left is back, it'll raise the debt.' It's already happened! 'The Left will hurt competitiveness' — it's already happened," he thundered. "Well, we'll do the opposite."

Unlike Sarkozy rallies, where a preppier crowd often hoists tricolor French flags in abundance, the Rennes gathering mostly brought out young students and retirees.

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