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Hollande wins French presidency, signals revisit of austerity

François Hollande won the presidency of France Sunday, defeating incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in an election that looks to rebalance France’s position in Europe.

François Hollande, a Socialist who ran on being mild, centrist, and “normal” — and who a year ago wasn’t a contender — won the presidency of France Sunday, defeating incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in an election that looks to rebalance France’s position in Europe.

Mr. Hollande said in his victory speech that the austerity-only policy that has been dictated by Germany as the prescription for a spiraling euro debt crisis is “not inevitable.” Berlin will be Hollande’s first port of call, possibly as soon as this week. 

French voters pushed out Mr. Sarkozy, the dominant figure in politics and media here since his election in 2007; French voted for change with a turnout of 80 percent, but in a skeptical mood about the future. Sarkozy admitted defeat after exit polling at 8 pm showed Hollande winning 51.9 percent to his 48.1. 

“The French have chosen change and elected me,” said Hollande before a cheering crowd at 9:30 in which he wanted to reopen the idea of a “French dream.” 

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“There are not two Frances … pitted against each other,” he said, adding. “I want to give hope back to the French people … dignity, pride.” France, he said, should judge his presidency on two issues: young people and justice.

Hollande said the eyes of Europe were upon France over how it would respond to Europe’s economic crisis. He signaled that the austerity-only policy of government budget cuts, championed by Germany in partnership with Sarkozy, must be leavened with policies of growth fueled by government spending.

With Europe in a banking and debt crisis, the election turned on the question of austerity vs. growth policies, analysts say, as well as the divisive figure of Sarkozy himself, and whether France would accept his turn to themes of the far right.

President-elect Hollande, whose supporters this evening gathered at the Bastille in Paris, promised national unity, social justice, and economic growth. Those themes increasingly contrasted with Sarkozy, who veered to the nationalist and often socially-divisive far right. Sarkozy also found himself lashed to the austerity policy of Germany’s Angela Merkel, even as that policy of budget slashing is seen as bringing down six European governments and anger in the streets of Europe.

‘The end of arrogance’

Socialist Party No. 2 Harlem Desir announced moments after 8 pm that, “On this May 6, with François Hollande, it’s the Republic that’s coming back. France has refused the slide of Sarkozyism and has chosen to take back control of her destiny. It’s the end of arrogance: This May 6 is a day of victory for all Republicans.”

As a political figure here, Sarkozy now appears out. Immediately at 8 pm his ruling UMP party issued a statement that he will not lead in parliamentary elections this June. Sarkozy, 57, and elected in 2007 as the youngest French president ever, has steadily said if he lost in 2012 he would retire from politics.

In a moving speech to his supporters tonight, Sarkozy said: “A new era is beginning. In this new era, I will remain one of you. I share your ideas, your convictions, your ideals. You can count on me to defend them. But my place can no longer be the same.”

“Sarkozy is not a far right guy, but he does what is politically expedient every time, and this time that was a campaign that was totally negative,” says Arun Kapil of Catholic University in Paris. “For Americans that’s not surprising. But it is new in France.”

Hollande takes the reins of Europe’s No. 2 economy and the fifth largest in the world, amid a debt and banking crisis. His aides have been reassuring markets in London, New York, and Frankfurt that he is not a wild-eyed, wild-spending radical but a pragmatic centrist elite whose policies are going to be mainstream.

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He is also expected to quickly explore “growth” policies to supplement the austerity orthodoxy that helped fell political leaders in Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Spain, Italy, and Romania.

Hollande last week described himself as a Keynsian on the economy, and he is known to be a pragmatist as well as a product of France’s elite schools. His first trip, expected within days, is to Berlin to visit Chancellor Merkel for a frank conversation on how to include various kinds of stimulus to the “stability pact” signed to by 27 EU nations in January, but which has been criticized by more and more European leaders and, last week, the International Monetary Fund.

Hope for national unity

At polling stations in Paris there seemed little enthusiasm for either candidate. In more than a dozen interviews, French often said they voted for the candidate that would do the least damage at a time when unemployment is 10 percent.

In the 3rd district of Paris, Marie-Laurence Perret, 65, voted for Hollande. The “most urgent thing is to give the French back their confidence,” she says. “Hollande is defending growth and more and more countries [in Europe] are starting to come to that side too.”

Ms. Perret’s friend, Olivier Godet, hopes Hollande can deliver on his promise to promote national unity and wants the social climate to be depolarized and less divided.