Has anyone in Europe heard of François Hollande? The socialist candidate for the French presidential election is much more discreet than outgoing president Nicolas Sarkozy, and little known in international politicial circles. However, on the evening of 6 May, he may become the leader of the second most influential state in the EU, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s new alter ego. As it stands, he has a 20 point lead over Sarkozy in the polls. So it is time to time to take an interest in the man who for many years has been viewed as a bland party hack.

In December, François Hollande created waves in the European debate with the announcement that if he was elected he would renegotiate the budgetary pact signed by 25 member states. In early February he re-affirmed this position, which has been described as irresponsible by Sarkozy and his ministers, and greeted with a certain scepticism in Berlin: "More attention should be paid to growth, support for the economy, jobs and an effective coordination of economic policies: we will not accept this treaty as it stands."

Having begun his political career under François Mitterrand and maintained close links with Jacques Delors, François Hollande is what the French call a Européen de raison: that is to say that he has a rational rather than an emotional commitment to the European project, which is a trait he shares with many of the current generation of EU leaders. At the same time he is the candidate for a party that was profoundly divided over the 2005 vote on the European Constitution, which is perhaps why he tends to adopt a very prudent approach to European issues.

A case in point is the 21 February vote in the French national assembly on the 500-billion euro European Stability Mechanism, which will provide a permanent rescue fund for EU states in difficulty. With little room for manoeuvre in the context of his pledge to renegotiate the budgetary pact and the need to avoid blocking an essential measure for stability in the eurozone, Hollande advocated that members of the Socialist Party abstain. In fact 20 of them voted against the proposal which implies that if he is elected, the future President Hollande will have to contend with opposition on European issues at the level of his own party.

But should we take that to mean that he will be powerless? Although he has yet to offer precise details of his vision for Europe and clarify the position adopted by his party, Hollande will not be alone in advocating a more growth-oriented strategy. Angela Merkel’s Germany, with backing from Monetary Affairs Commissioner, Olli Rehn, and countries like Finland and the Netherlands, will no doubt continue to emphasise budgetary discipline and spending cuts, but Hollande stands to benefit from support in other quarters: especially in the context of the letter signed this week by 12 European heads of state including Britain’s David Cameron and Spain’s Mariano Rajoy, two prime ministers who can hardly be described as extravagant. Clearly the idea of a more growth oriented policy in Europe is attracting growing support.

If he is elected, François Hollande will have no opportunity to renegotiate a budgetary pact which for now has succeeded in calming the crisis. But his voice will add further weight to calls for a more palatable alternative to the current austerity policy. Between now and 6 May, his remarks will also play an important role in the behind-the-scenes competition between France and Mario Monti’s Italy to be the state that is Germany’s main partner and counterweight. With this in mind, Europeans should be careful to take note of what he says, while Mr Hollande should make the effort to express himself clearly.