- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 15, 2012

PARIS — Francois Hollande became president of France on Tuesday in a ceremony steeped in tradition, taking over a country with deep debts and worried about Europe’s future and pledging to make it a fairer place.

Mr. Hollande is only the second Socialist president of modern France, after Francois Mitterrand’s tenure in 1981-95, and rode to the presidency on a wave of resurgent leftist sentiment amid Europe’s debt crisis and anti-free-market protests around the world.

Mr. Hollande, 57, was elected to a five-year term earlier this month after voters ousted incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy after only one term. Voters were disappointed over Mr. Sarkozy’s handling of France’s economy — which has high unemployment and low growth — and recoiled at his aggressive personality.

Mr. Hollande plans to leave shortly on his first diplomatic foray — to Berlin, where he is meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a critical meeting on austerity and growth in Europe.

Arriving Tuesday morning at the 18th-century Elysee Palace, the traditional residence of French presidents, Mr. Hollande was greeted by Mr. Sarkozy on the red-carpeted steps. The two held a 40-minute private meeting that is traditionally the moment when the outgoing president hands over the codes to France’s nuclear arsenal.

Mr. Hollande was declared president after the head of the constitutional court read out the final results of the May 6 election.

In his first presidential speech, Mr. Hollande promised to fight financial speculation and “open a new path” in Europe but acknowledged that he inherits huge government debt. He has pushed back against austerity measures championed by Germany amid Europe’s debt crisis and wants government stimulus instead. Mr. Hollande also pledged to bring “dignity” to the presidential role — something voters felt that Mr. Sarkozy did not always do.

Mr. Hollande immediately acknowledged the challenges he faces: “a massive debt, weak growth, high unemployment, degraded competitivity and a Europe that is struggling to come out of crisis.”

With the economy in the doldrums and joblessness high, the French mood is glum and many voters are looking to the inauguration as a rare moment of national pride and to Mr. Hollande’s presidency as a new opportunity to make things better.

World markets, other European leaders and France will be watching closely to see how and whether Mr. Hollande follows through on his campaign promises, such as calling for a renegotiation of Europe’s budget-cutting treaty, freezing gasoline prices and increasing taxes on the rich. Observers expect that once he settles into the presidency, he’s likely to fall back into the moderate consensus-building that has characterized his career.

Mr. Hollande has named Jean-Marc Ayrault as his new prime minister, incoming Elysee Palace Secretary-General Pierre-Rene Lemas announced Tuesday afternoon.

Mr. Ayrault is a the leader of the Socialists in France’s lower house of parliament. He is also a German speaker — a potential advantage for Mr.  Hollande, whose success as president may partly depend on his relationship with MRs. Merkel.

The 62-year-old Mr. Ayrault succeeds conservative Francois Fillon as the head of government.

Guests at the ceremony included France’s leftist political elite, 10 French Nobel Prize winners, France’s chief rabbi, the head of an umbrella group of French Muslim organizations, the daughter of late President Francois Mitterrand’s mistress and a host of cultural figures.

Mr. Hollande received the insignia of the Grand Croix from the hands of Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin, who heads the prestigious Legion of Honor, and the necklace of the Great Master of the Order of the Legion of Honor. Each linked medallion of the necklace bears the name of a president, with Mr. Hollande’s name recently added.

Mr. Sarkozy left the palace hand in hand with wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, had a last handshake on the palace steps with Mr. Hollande and then was driven away. Former staffers gathered in the palace courtyard applauded loudly as Mr. Sarkozy left, and fans gathered at the Elysee gates waving signs reading, “Nicolas, merci!”

Mr. Hollande shook hands with many of the hundreds present at the ceremony and then reviewed troops in the palace gardens. Following tradition, 21 gunshots were fired above the Invalides, a domed complex on the opposite side of the Seine River that holds Napoleon’s tomb.

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