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.”

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.

“I think it’s going to be more uncomfortable for the Germans. There’s no doubt that the French under Mr. Hollande will be a more difficult partner for them,” said Simon Tilford, senior economist at the Centre for European Reform in London.

Still, as voices questioning Europe’s austerity drive grow louder across the Continent, many doubt that Mr. Hollande will be able to implement the growth measures on which he campaigned.

“Much will depend on the situation in France, on the market reactions, and on the attitude of our European partners, but there is great uncertainty,” said Iana Dreyer of the Institut Montaigne, a think tank in Paris. “The real constraint is the current budget constraint, which leaves a very little room to maneuver.”

French voters echoed those concerns.

“I’m afraid Hollande won’t be able to implement the policies he wants, so either he will end up pursuing Sarkozy’s policies but in a less efficient way, or he’ll just do nothing,” said marketing executive Martin Billie, 38, of Paris. “But these are times when we most need action.”

Some also question Mr. Hollande’s lack of foreign policy experience. Geopolitics played a minor role in the campaign, and where he has discussed issues beyond Europe, there are signs that his policies may diverge from Mr. Sarkozy’s close alignment with the U.S. — for example pulling out of Afghanistan a year earlier than planned.

Still, Mr. Hollande has stressed that France and the U.S. are friends and partners, and some observers say that the new president’s diplomatic style could be a breath of fresh air after a French leader who once told British Prime Minister David Cameron to “shut up” at an EU summit.

The far-right factor

“Compared to Sarkozy, who did not hesitate to brutalize our European partners and even the G-20, our partners will find in Francois Hollande a president who can also take into account their national interests and be able to maintain a higher quality of diplomatic relations than Nicolas Sarkozy,” said Olivier Ferrand, head of the Paris-based think tank Terra Nova.

The election also served the interests of National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who took 18 percent in the first round of the presidential vote April 22 — an unprecedented result for the far-right party.

Ms. Le Pen refused to back either of the candidates in Sunday’s runoff, appealing to her supporters to cast a “vote blanc” (“none of the above”). Analysts said this could have contributed to Mr. Sarkozy’s downfall as far-right voters withheld their support even as he moved his platform further to the right.

Some say Mr. Sarkozy, whose presidency has been characterized by moves to limit immigration and bans on Islamic veils and halal meat, has alienated centrist voters with talk of “too many immigrants” and the need to close borders.

“Fundamentally, Sarkozy has moved [his party] to an increasingly polarized and right-wing party, standing at the gates of the far right,” Mr. Ferrand said. “This movement has been greatly intensified during the campaign of the second round. … Before Sarkozy, [the rejection of diversity, Islam and immigration] was confined to the margins of the republic; no government party had ever endorsed such positions.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Le Pen has set her sights on parliamentary elections in June, when she will aim to translate support for her presidential bid into seats in the National Assembly and challenge Mr. Sarkozy’s Union for Popular Movement party as the major force of right-wing French politics.

“If [Ms. Le Pen] can get a good score in [June] elections and even if she manages to win one or two MPs in the National Assembly, she will exert pressure to implode the UMP,” said Frederic Micheau, deputy director of polling institute Ifop, in Paris.

“The most likely scenario in this hypothetical case is that part of the UMP, the far-right part of the UMP would leave to join a reformed Front National under a new name, a kind of grand alliance of the reactionary right.”

Ruby Russell reported from Berlin for this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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