French voters reject austerity tack, oust Sarkozy for Socialist leader

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PARIS — French voters on Sunday elected Socialist Francois Hollande as president, rejecting Nicolas Sarkozy’s push for austerity and anti-immigration rhetoric in his re-election bid.

Exuberant, diverse crowds filled the Place de la Bastille, the iconic plaza of the French Revolution, to fete Mr. Hollande’s victory, waving French, European and labor union flags. Leftists are overjoyed to have one of their own in power for the first time since Socialist Francois Mitterrand was president from 1981 to 1995.

“Austerity can no longer be inevitable,” Mr. Hollande declared in his victory speech Sunday night.

Mr. Hollande said European partners should be relieved and not frightened by his presidency.

“I am proud to have been capable of giving people hope again,” he told huge crowds of supporters in his electoral fiefdom of Tulle in central France. “We will succeed.”

Supporters of Mr. Hollande celebrate with champagne after results of the second round of the French presidential election were announced Sunday. The party outside Socialist Party headquarters in Paris. "Austerity can no longer be inevitable," Mr. Hollande declared in his victory speech Sunday night, referring to Mr. Sarkozy's push for belt-tightening to fight persistent unemployment and rising national debt. (Associated Press)

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Supporters of Mr. Hollande celebrate with champagne after results of the second ... more >

With 75 percent of the vote counted, Mr. Hollande received 51.1 percent of the vote to Mr. Sarkozy’s 48.9 percent, according to official returns. The incumbent, who trailed in polls since the beginning of the race and was widely expected to lose, becomes France’s first one-term president since Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who lost in 1981.

“Growth and jobs are the two greatest challenges that France faces at the moment,” said Alexandra Pardal of the Foreign Policy Center, a London-based think tank. “Sarkozy has shown that his agenda hasn’t generated the results he promised at the beginning of his term. … It’s as much a rejection of Sarkozy as embracing a new agenda.”

Unemployment and national debt have risen steadily since Mr. Sarkozy took office in 2007, while tax increases and a rise in the retirement age drove thousands into the French streets in protest in the past two years.

Mr. Sarkozy conceded defeat minutes after the polls closed, saying he had called Mr. Hollande to wish him “good luck” as the country’s new leader.

“I bear responsibility … for the defeat,” he said. “I committed myself totally, fully, but I didn’t succeed in convincing a majority of the French. … I didn’t succeed in making the values we share win.”

Analysts say Mr. Hollande’s promises to create public-sector jobs, get tough on the financial sector and push for a growth agenda in Europe won over French voters suffering economically.

Mr. Sarkozy’s brash and extravagant image also worked against him. The French public increasingly has seen him as out of touch, being photographed frequently in fancy restaurants with his glamorous heiress wife, Italian former supermodel Carla Bruni.

“[Sarkozy] is seen as highly narcissistic and not someone who really believes in the good of the country but is just out for himself really,” Ms. Pardal said. “His ‘bling-bling’ approach disgusts people at a time when they are really suffering because of the recession.”

Economic focus

The election was watched closely outside France as Mr. Hollande said repeatedly that he intends to shift the balance from the austerity agenda that Mr. Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have pushed over recent years as a solution to the debt crisis in Europe.

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