PARIS -- Slow and steady wins the race.
French Socialist Francois Hollande has taken his plodding, undynamic campaign to become France's next president to within spitting distance of victory over the "hyper-president" Nicolas Sarkozy, finishing first in Sunday's initial round of voting.
The bespectacled 57-year-old career politician, who says he dislikes the rich and considers the world of high finance his enemy, will carry the momentum of this win into the final two weeks of campaigning against Sarkozy, who finished second in Sunday's vote.
Like the tortoise in Aesop's fable, Hollande maintained a slow and steady pace ever since he won his party's primary last October, never seeming to rally much enthusiasm behind his campaign even while maintaining a solid lead in the polls.
The contrast in character between Hollande, an affable, soft-spoken and witty longtime party boss, and his chief rival Sarkozy has been one of the main distinguishing features of a race that has largely focused on style over substance.
Where Hollande projected a calm, relaxed persona even through the final day of campaigning Friday, Sarkozy, true to form, was a manic ball of energy, lashing out at what he considers a biased media and unveiling one new campaign pledge after another.
Hollande says he wants to be a "normal" president, tapping into what polls show is a strong demand among the French to turn the page after five years of Sarkozy.
Hollande has built his reputation as a manager and consensus-builder more than a visionary. He's virtually unknown outside France, has never held ministerial function, and critics say he has limited international experience to head the nuclear-armed nation.
Simply not being Sarkozy may have won him support among voters wanting above all else to see the back of the incumbent.
It's a criticism Hollande has tried of late to counter, saying at a rally last week that his campaign was "not just a sanction" of Sarkozy, "but an elevation" of his own project.
That project calls notably for a pullout of French troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, higher taxes on the very wealthy, and a major new hiring of teachers.
Hollande is also promising to reopen negotiations over the hard-won European budgetary stability pact, with the aim of stressing economic growth over austerity.
Sunday's victory comes as a form of revenge for Hollande, who led the Socialist Party during its last two presidential defeats in 2002 and 2007.
Hollande's former partner Segolene Royal – the mother of his four children – was the Socialists' last presidential nominee. Their relationship unraveled during the 2007 campaign, and they later separated. She ran again this year, but lost badly in the first phase of the primary last October.
Hollande's program calls for reversing cuts in education 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.
Hollande has a topflight educational pedigree, with degrees from the reputed HEC business school, Sciences Po political institute, and the finishing school for French political and management elites known as ENA.
A popular French satirical TV show, Les Guignols de l'Info, had recently depicted Hollande as a sort of goofy simpleton with a dopey laugh, a marked contrast to its scheming, self-important puppet of Sarkozy.
Political wags this year noted that Hollande's weight loss and new use of frameless eyeglasses coincided with his rise in the polls.
Sarkozy and Hollande have squared off electorally before: Each led their party's list for the 1999 European parliament elections.