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French voters oust Sarkozy to dent centre-right dominance in Europe

The face of of the newly-elected French President Francois Hollande appears on a giant screen to announce the winner of the 2012 French presidential elections at the Rue de Solferino Socialist Party headquarters in Paris, May 6, 2012. France voted in elections on Sunday and Francois Hollande became the nation's first Socialist president in 17 years, early results said


"NORMAL!" That one-word banner, splashed across the Monday morning cover of the left-wing Paris daily Liberation above a big photo of newly-elected president François Hollande, seemed to sum up the new French zeitgeist.

The famously bland, plodding and methodical Mr. Hollande, who campaigned as "Mr. Normal," has become France's first left-wing president in 17 years – and for the moment is the only non-conservative leader of any major European country – after winning a strong majority against incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Mr. Sarkozy abruptly conceded defeat moments after polls closed. Official results showed Mr. Hollande with 51.6 per cent of the vote compared with Mr. Sarkozy's 48.4 per cent, the Interior Ministry said. "I am proud to have been able to restore hope," Mr. Hollande told supporters in a somewhat anticlimactic victory speech in his central-France constituency.

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"When the result was declared," he said, "I am sure that in many other European countries it was met with relief and hope ... . Austerity is not inevitable. That is now my mission: to provide a European vision of growth, employment, prosperity –in one word, our future."

Mr. Hollande's election ends an uncomfortable consensus among the centre-right parties that had controlled the governments of all major European countries during the past year. He has vowed to withdraw troops from Afghanistan earlier and change the relationship with NATO, to negotiate a "Tobin tax" on financial transactions, and to renegotiate the euro bailout pact to allow higher levels of government spending and debt in order to spur economic growth.

"We have to reduce our debt and control our deficits," he added, in an apparent tip of the hat to investors and foreign governments worried about his promises of programs that would require increased spending in the midst of a debt crisis. Indeed, he has promised to keep deficits to within the European Union target of 3 per cent of GDP, though he has not suggested how.

Indeed, Mr. Hollande's campaign aides said he had a phone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday evening, and would visit her immediately after his May 16 inauguration, in order to assuage market worries that an ideological rift between France and Germany could jeopardize the euro-crisis rescue pact.

Mr. Hollande had campaigned on a promise to renegotiate that pact, which is based on debt-slashing budget cuts, in order to make it easier for governments to spend more on growth-boosting investment. Ms. Merkel has opposed such an approach, and investors worried that the collapse of the Franco-German "Merkozy" relationship could cause a run on the euro.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper called Mr. Hollande to congratulate him and the two agreed on the need to meet "in the near future," according to a spokesman for Mr. Harper.

The vote marks a stark end to the five-year rule of Mr. Sarkozy, whose leadership was marked by a flamboyant personal style, recurring confrontations with immigrants and ethnic minorities, and free-market reforms that were boldly promised but rarely delivered.

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As a result, Mr. Sarkozy was the rare incumbent president who did not campaign on his accomplishments. His speeches, which centred on the fear of Muslim immigrations and evocations of party founder Gen. Charles de Gaulle, never contained the usual laundry list of victories from his five years in office.

This allowed Mr. Hollande to contrast his opponent's message of fear with one of modest hope – even if that hope represented a return to the stable, state-led France of old. By deliberately contrasting his humble, bureaucratic style with the flamboyant, high-spending, wealth-loving aura of Mr. Sarkozy, the "vanilla custard" leadership of Mr. Hollande appeared more secure to many voters – especially those under 30, who are suffering from horrendously high unemployment rates and voted for him in large numbers.

The intensity of the competition was reflected in the voter turnout, which the IFOP polling firm projected at 81.5 per cent – slightly lower than 2007, but better than previous elections.

It was an ugly campaign that saw the eruption of language and promises usually reserved for the extreme right wing into mainstream politics.

After National Front leader Marine Le Pen attracted a record-breaking 18 per cent of the vote in the May 22 first-round election, Mr. Sarkozy adopted many of her stances against ethnic and religious minorities and immigration. In his sole debate against Mr. Hollande, Mr. Sarkozy railed against North African Muslims, and critics within his own party said he had expressed a form of intolerance that is considered incompatible with their values.

While some of Ms. Le Pen's supporters cast their ballots for Mr. Sarkozy, a good number also sided with Mr. Hollande's anti-globalization message, and even more appeared to cast blank ballots.

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However, Mr. Sarkozy helped smooth over this deep schism with a magnanimous conciliation speech delivered shortly after the polls closed. "France now has a new president and he must be respected," he told angry supporters in Paris. "I assume full responsibility for this defeat. … I'm going to become another Frenchman among all the people of France."

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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