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Excerpt: "Francois Hollande swept into office on Sunday, becoming the first Socialist to be elected president of France since Francois Mitterrand left office in 1995."

Francois Hollande addresses supporters in Tulle, France, 05/06/12. (photo: Philippe Desmazes/AFP)
Francois Hollande addresses supporters in Tulle, France, 05/06/12. (photo: Philippe Desmazes/AFP)

Hollande Ousts Sarkozy in French Election

By Steven Erlanger, Nicola Clark, The New York Times

06 May 12


r. Hollande's campaign promised a kinder, gentler, more inclusive France, but his victory over President Nicolas Sarkozy will also be seen as a challenge to the German-dominated policy of economic austerity in the euro zone, which is suffering from recession and record unemployment.

French voters may not like the belt-tightening, but both Mr. Hollande and Mr. Sarkozy had promised to balance the budget in the next five years. Domestically, the vote was considered to be a rejection of Mr. Sarkozy and his effort to appeal to the voters of the far right National Front. Mr. Sarkozy is the first incumbent to be ousted since Valéry Giscard d'Estaing lost to Mr. Mitterrand in 1981.

With about half the votes counted, preliminary results released by the Interior Ministry shortly after the last polling stations closed at 8 p.m. showed Mr. Hollande had secured about 51 percent of the vote, while Mr. Sarkozy, of the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, had about 49 percent. The results were slightly closer than expected.

"François Hollande is the president of the republic; he must be respected," Mr. Sarkozy said in a gracious concession speech shortly after the polls closed. "I want to wish him good luck in the midst of these tests."

Mr. Sarkozy thanked "the millions of French who voted for me," but said he accepted "total responsibility" for Sunday's results.

"My involvement in the life of my country will be different now," Mr. Sarkozy said. "But time will never weaken the ties between us."

Speaking earlier to members of his party, Mr. Sarkozy, who campaigned energetically to the end, told them to "remain united" and not give in to division. He said he would not lead the party into June's legislative elections but said they were "winnable."

"I become a citizen among you," he added.

The presidential election in France and the parliamentary vote in Greece on Sunday have been closely watched in European capitals, particularly in Berlin, where Chancellor Angela Merkel has led the drive to cure the debt and banking crisis in the euro zone with deep budget cuts and caps on spending.

Mr. Hollande will make an early visit to Berlin. Ms. Merkel spent Sunday watching the results of state elections in Schleswig-Holstein, where exit polls indicated that her party was losing a fight to hold on to the state Parliament. With another election coming on May 13 in North Rhine-Westphalia State, Ms. Merkel is not viewed as having much room domestically to compromise on crucial economic issues.

Mr. Sarkozy is the latest of a string of European incumbents, from both the left and the right, to lose in a larger popular revolt against budget-cutting and tax increased during a time of recession and high unemployment. Mr. Hollande has said he intends to give "a new direction to Europe," demanding that a European Union treaty limiting debt be expanded to include measures to produce economic growth.

"How Hollande handles Merkel could make or break his prospects for the next five years," said François Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "He has favorable circumstances, but she has domestic politics, too."

Ms. Merkel is considered likely to agree to only symbolic changes in the fiscal pact — not renegotiating it so much as adding clauses about growth.

Voters in Greece on Sunday appeared to radically redraw the political map there, bolstering the far left and neo-Nazi right in a wave of protest against the dominant political parties that they blame for the country's economic collapse.

The shift in France could prove to be more crucial. While crowds in Paris cheered Mr. Hollande's victory, investors were more cautious in their reactions.

They are concerned that Mr. Hollande might choose to spend more money to jump-start the economy rather than move ahead with labor and business reforms that economists say France sorely needs to improve its competitiveness to prevent it from getting caught in the euro zone crisis.

"Markets will not attack France right away," said Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. "But there is a risk that if Mr. Hollande does not act early on, France will become the next sick man of Europe."

Mr. Hollande, who could take over as president as early as May 16, will have little time to relax. He must travel to the United States for a meeting of the Group of 8 industrialized countries on May 18 and 19 and then attend a NATO summit meeting in Chicago the two days after that. In Chicago, he intends to make good on his promise to pull French troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year, although American and NATO officials will try to get him to change his mind.

Mr. Hollande's victory will also have important implications for the right in France, with Mr. Sarkozy's party already split between the prime minister, François Fillon, and the leader of the Union for a Popular Movement, Jean-François Copé.

The strong showing of Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front party, who got nearly 18 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election, is a serious threat to Mr. Sarkozy's party.

It will have to decide whether Mr. Sarkozy will lead it into the parliamentary elections in June and make a deal with Ms. Le Pen for seats in the National Assembly. If not, Mr. Sarkozy's party could lose up to 100 seats, political experts say.

Mr. Hollande campaigned on "change" as well as a more traditional presidency in which he would set the main policies but not micromanage day-to-day affairs, as Mr. Sarkozy did. But Mr. Sarkozy was decisive, especially in times of crisis, and many question whether Mr. Hollande can do the same.

For the French, "it is a leap of faith that shows there is a strong will for a different policy course, not just at the national but at the E.U. level as well," said Paul Vallet, a professor of history and political science at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.

Europe's debt-troubled nations also hope that Mr. Hollande will help them buy them more time to make economic adjustments.

"Some countries in Europe are banking on that," Mr. Vallet said. "Greece is hoping very much for a Hollande victory, hoping that he will side with them on loosening the fiscal austerity plan." Spain, too, could be hoping for France to be the point man with Germany on this issue, he said.

Mr. Hollande has called for euro zone bonds to finance infrastructure projects, for a financial transaction tax and for a loosening of regulations that would allow unused European Union structural funds to be spent on growth. Ms. Merkel can accept all these ideas, German officials have said, but she will not budge on loosening debt limits or allowing the European Central Bank to ease up on inflation or to loan directly to governments.

Domestically, Mr. Hollande has promised to raise taxes on big corporations and to increase the tax rate for those earning more than 1 million euros, or about $1.3 million, a year to 75 percent. He says that over the next five years, he will spend about $26 billion on programs and increase taxes by about $38 billion in order to balance the budget by 2017. Mr. Hollande has vowed to raise the minimum wage, hire 60,000 more teachers over five years and lower the retirement age from 62 to 60 for manual workers who started work as teenagers.

Voter turnout was about 81 percent of the 46 million registered voters, down from the 84 percent who participated in the last presidential election five years ago.

Many voters, casting their ballots under gray skies and intermittent rain, expressed a strong desire for change and a better economic future.

Nicole Hirsch, a 60-year-old retiree in the working-class 20th Arrondissement of Paris, said she was voting for Mr. Hollande in the hope that he would "bring the change that France needs."

Pierre Marcus, a 59-year-old civil servant, said his vote for Mr. Hollande was motivated by the hope that a Socialist government would take steps to promote economic growth and soften the blow of the crisis on average citizens.

"Five years of Sarkozy dismantled social institutions," Mr. Marcus said. "I think that Hollande will reverse French politics in terms of employment and social issues."

Mr. Sarkozy, he said, had "ruled as a monarch" and "increased inequalities in the country."

Mr. Marcus compared the last five years to the period during the reign of King Louis Philippe in the 19th century.

"The bourgeoisie got much richer, and the peasants and workers lived in extreme misery," Mr. Marcus said.

Sebastien Modat, 38, who works in marketing, said "Hollande had the power to bring people together."

"The right was compelled to take up its traditional topics, creating tension among people," he said. But the main question, he added, "is how we are going to resume growth."

He voted for Mr. Sarkozy five years ago, but on Sunday he cast a blank ballot, which are not counted. "I hope there will be a change in mentalities and more consensus," he said.

Mathieu François, 48, an entrepreneur, said he had voted for a centrist candidate in the first round but for Mr. Hollande in the second. He said the trick would be to restart the economy without forgetting the poor and disadvantaged. "Sarkozy had favored the rich and austerity instead," he said.

His vote for Mr. Hollande, he said, was "a bet that this can work, that in a period of crisis, a political change can be favorable." France, after all, is neither Greece nor Spain. he said. "I have confidence in the fundamentals of my country." your social media marketing partner
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