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Francois Hollande, French President Candidate, On Brink Of Victory

By ANGELA CHARLTON 05/03/12 03:57 PM ET AP

Francois Hollande

PARIS -- The last time France voted for president, Francois Hollande was a portly, smiley man likened to custard pudding who played second fiddle to Segolene Royal, his Socialist party's candidate and the mother of his four kids.

Now he's the party's candidate, and on the brink of an improbable electoral triumph – an increasingly statesmanlike figure with a trim waistline, stern frown, and promising future who waged a tough debate this week with the air of, well, a president.

Hollande still has to beat conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy in their election runoff Sunday. But even on the very off chance that Hollande defies polls and loses, he will have made a remarkable transformation.

In a picture-perfect campaign rally Thursday in front of a sunset in southern France, Hollande declared confidently that he's "ready to lead the country."

Ambitious words for a guy once dubbed as soft as a strawberry – and that by a fellow Socialist. Others called him a marshmallow. A popular satirical puppet show, Les Guignols de l'Info, depicted him as a flan custard, a wide-eyed simpleton eternally unable to make up his mind.

As boss of the Socialist Party from 1997-2008, he was often seen as a mouthpiece for the more vigorous and dynamic party elders. The party nearly disintegrated under his watch.

As the Socialists geared up for the 2007 elections, Hollande's then-partner Royal was overwhelmingly more popular. One poll put support for her at 42 percent; for him, just 12. He was ridiculed as "Monsieur Royal" during his partner's campaign, and their relationship fell apart.

Throughout Sarkozy's presidency, Hollande was in the shadows as a potential challenger.

But the Socialists had their hearts set on someone else for the party nomination: now-disgraced former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. After Strauss-Kahn's political career melted down amid sexual scandals, regular-old Hollande started looking better and better.

He cut down on the burgers and trimmed the tummy. He ditched his round and friendly specs for squared-off, frameless ones.

His pledges to be a "normal" president struck a chord with a populace worried about the future. Other, more charismatic challengers emerged, then fell victim to Hollande's slow but steady campaign.

On Wednesday, the transformation looked complete.

In a televised debate with Sarkozy – a man with a sometimes venomous tongue who reportedly threatened to "atomize" his challenger – Hollande stood his ground. To Sarkozy's every volley, Hollande had a riposte. No holds were barred, and no one lost.

"No one really knew Francois Hollande, no one really suspected the strength that he could have. And we have discovered it," Hollande biographer Serge Raffy told The Associated Press on Thursday.

At Hollande's last big rally in Toulouse on Thursday, retiree Daniel Troupeau agreed: "Francois Hollande was up to it. He was very aggressive mostly, but he knew what to answer back. He had the allure of a grand president."

Known for his sense of humor, Hollande has toned down the jocularity and turned up the fighting words during the campaign.

At the Toulouse rally, he sarcastically dismissed Sarkozy's "modesty, restraint and reserve" in the debate, then made his real point, slicing his hands in the air as he did so: "You will rip victory from the hands of the right, to offer it to all the people!"

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Masha Macpherson in Toulouse and Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this report.

Earlier on HuffPost:

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  • France's incumbent president and Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party candidate for the French 2012 presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy gives a speech during a campaign meeting in Le Raincy, near Paris, on April 26, 2012. (LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/GettyImages)

  • France's Socialist Party (PS) candidate for the 2012 French presidential election Francois Hollande smiles during his visit in the northern French city of Hirson on April 24, 2012. (KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Supporters attend a campaign meeting of France's incumbent president and Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party candidate for the French 2012 presidential election Nicolas Sarkozy in Le Raincy, near Paris, on April 26, 2012. Socialist Party (PS)'s presidential candidate won the first round of France's presidential election on April 22, with 28.6 percent of the vote over 27.2 percent for Sarkozy. (LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/GettyImages)

  • A picture shows campaign posters of French candidtaes for the 2012 presidential election, reinterpreted in a satirical way in a street of Paris, on April 24, 2012. Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist rival Francois Hollande stepped up their battle today for the six million votes that went to the far right in the first round of France's presidential election. (JOEL SAGET/AFP/GettyImages)

  • France's incumbent President and UMP ruling party's candidate for the 2012 presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy (C) visits the city centre of Longjumeau, south of Paris, on April 24, 2012. (MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Members of AIDES French NGO demonstrate in front of the campaign headquarters of France's incumbent president and Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party candidate for the French 2012 presidential election on April 26, 2012 in Paris. (LOIC VENANCE/AFP/GettyImages)

  • A Supporter of France's Socialist Party (PS) candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, Francois Hollande, sticks posters promoting her candidate on April 25, 2012 in Mulhouse, eastern France. (SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Picture of a painting on a wall representing French Front de Gauche (FG) leftist party candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, Jean-Luc Melenchon in a street of Paris, on April 24, 2012. (JOEL SAGET/AFP/GettyImages)

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