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, and the body language was uncomfortable: they clasped hands from a distance, and smiled to the cheering throng. But the message — party unity — was clear. His new romantic partner, political journalist Valerie Trierweiler, looked on from a seat in the crowd.
Hollande's near 90-minute speech covered his platform: A focus on education, job support for French youths facing high jobless rates, equal pay for women, respect for culture and ethnic diversity. Sarkozy has structured his campaign on a theme of a "strong France."
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."
The rich, he said, will be asked to pay more, and more money will be redistributed "to allow France to pick itself up."
Unlike Sarkozy rallies, where a preppier crowd often hoists tricolor French flags in abundance, the Rennes gathering mostly brought out young students and retirees.
His campaign has been textbook: He launched a 60-point platform months ago, hewing to many Socialist tenets. At times, he comes across as stiff and cautious, but has made no big gaffes.
Hollande's biggest challenge has been to try to project presidential caliber. While his pedigree is top-tier as a graduate of the Ecole National d'Administration — the French breeding-ground school for both political and corporate elites like former President Jacques Chirac — he has never run a government ministry.
Under his tenure as party boss, the Socialists suffered one of the biggest shockers in recent French political history: Lionel Jospin lost the first round to far-right nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 presidential race, later won by Chirac. Hollande calls it the biggest blow of his career and one he won't soon forget.
Hollande was born in the Normandy city of Rouen, the son of a social-worker mother who he admired and a doctor father who backed the political right and whose ideas "forced me to construct my ideas," Hollande writes in his campaign-season book entitled "Changer de Destin" (Change Destiny).
On Les Guignols de l'Info, a satirical fake news show with puppets, Hollande has long been depicted as innocent, wide-eyed and soft-in-the-middle — with a dopey, hollow laugh.
But in the Sarkozy era, he's tapped into frustration about unemployment and perceived economic inequality. While Sarkozy, a former hard-charging Interior Minister, has trotted out his longtime formula of playing up his security credentials, Hollande has focused on what polls show worry the French most: joblessness and the economy.
The body language at the lectern — where both Sarkozy and Hollande can excel — speaks volumes. Hollande often leans on his elbows, or flails his arms about in the air, and laughs. Sarkozy cuts the air in crisp movements, and is seemingly less about engaging his audience than displaying resoluteness.
People who have known Hollande for years say his human touch and his assiduousness — often unseen — at the ground game of politics set him apart.
"What you notice most about Francois is that he's well-balanced, has integrity, and feels good about himself," said Frederic Bourcier, the Socialist Party's First Secretary in the region around Rennes, alluding to the image of Sarkozy as hasty, tempestuous and aggressive. "We need something new."