How regular Hollande defeated Super Sarkozy

Tuesday, May 8, 2012
By Clare Byrne, dpa

PARIS -- Francois Hollande became the first Socialist president of France in 17 years on Sunday, swept along by a groundswell of rejection of incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.

From the outset the election was a referendum on Sarkozy, with critical voters mobilizing to block another five years of his divisive leadership rather than to explicitly endorse Hollande.

“Too many divisions, too much hurt, too many ruptures, too many cuts have separated our citizens,” Hollande said in his first remarks as president-elect.

“I will be the president of all,” he told supporters in his central stronghold of Correze.

Nathalie Brisac, a 51-year-old writer, who celebrated Hollande's win at a street party outside the Socialist Party's headquarters, told dpa she was “super-happy. We kicked out Sarkozy!”

Sarkozy, for his part, was noble in defeat.

“I carry all the responsibility for this defeat,” Sarkozy acknowledged, wishing his successor luck.

The election was an emotional affair between Sarkozy and the French, who developed an intense dislike for him at the outset of his presidency for cozying up to the rich.

Five years later, Sarkozy wore his 2007 election celebration with some of France's richest people like a cross.

His contemptuous remark to a man who refused to shake his hand at a farm fair in 2008 — telling him to “Get lost, you poor idiot” — also clung to him, becoming a slogan in the campaign for his defeat.

Sarkozy vowed he was a changed man and worked hard to be more “presidential,” but then squandered his efforts by running a divisive campaign that overshadowed his achievements.

Instead of trying to unite the French around the efforts needed to tackle the country's towering debt burden, he chased after far-right National Front voters, declaring France had too many immigrants and needed tougher border controls.

He declared war on trade unions, casting them as impeding progress at the expense of “real” workers in the private sector.

The strategy backfired: It legitimized National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who won a record 17.9 percent in the first round of the election, and failed to reap the hoped-for rewards in the runoff.

A poll by Ipsos agency showed only 51 percent of FN voters had voted for Sarkozy on Sunday.

One of Sarkozy's other chief mistakes was to underestimate Hollande.

French media used the Aesop children's tale of the tortoise and the hare as a parable for the election.

Like the hare, Speedy Sarkozy, as he was dubbed, was convinced he would outrun the plodding Hollande, but the latter's consistency won the day.

“Me, as president of the republic, I will never call my prime minister a collaborator. Me, as president of the republic, I will ensure that my behavior is always exemplary,” Hollande told the French.

At a time of growing disenchantment across Europe with the austerity brew pushed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Sarkozy, Hollande's promise to shift the focus to growth and “social justice” also struck a chord.

His emphasis on gain over pain made him “rather dangerous” in the eyes of British magazine The Economist.

But in the eyes of the French, reducing social inequalities is seen as a necessary first step to shared sacrifice.

“I want to be judged by a single criterion: fair or not,” Hollande declared.

The challenges ahead for him are enormous. France's public debt is running at 1.7 trillion euros (US$2.2 trillion), higher than Spain's. Unemployment is running at 10 percent, a 13-year high. One ratings agency has already stripped France of its AAA credit rating.

Hollande has said his first priority is to renegotiate the fiscal compact signed by 25 European leaders in March to add chapters on growth and employment.

But Merkel, who backed Sarkozy for re-election, had already forewarned him she is not for turning.

And only moments after Hollande was declared the winner, a leading member of her Christian Democratic Union warned the new French president not to lose sight of the deficit.

“We all want sustained growth in Europe. But stability policies and budget discipline must not suffer through this, or else there will be a fresh phase of nervousness on markets,” Andreas Schockenhoff said.

Not long before, Hollande had said it was “not for Germany to decide for the rest of Europe.”

With the so-called “Merkozy” alliance now over, a potential Franco-German showdown in the weeks ahead could have potentially devastating effects on the eurozone's fragile recovery.

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