x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Austerity topples another leader as Hollande deposes Sarkozy as France president

Evicted from the Elysée after a turbulent five-year term, Nicolas Sarkozy became the latest in a series of European political leaders to be driven from office.

Nicolas Sarkozy addresses his supporters after his French presidential election defeat to Francois Hollande.
Nicolas Sarkozy addresses his supporters after his French presidential election defeat to Francois Hollande.

MARSEILLE, FRANCE // François Hollande was elected president of France, deposing Nicolas Sarkozy to become the country's first socialist head of state for 17 years.

Evicted from the Elysée after a turbulent five-year term, Mr Sarkozy became the latest in a series of European political leaders to be driven from office, in part by public resistance to painful austerity measures.

The first indications after polling closed gave Mr Hollande 51.9 per cent of the vote in a turnout estimated at about 81 per cent, about the same proportion as in the first round on April 22.

The margin of victory was narrower than the six-point lead cited earlier by Belgian and Swiss media outlets despite a strict embargo enforced in France while polling continued.

Mr Hollande, 57, achieved what his former partner, Ségolène Royal, the mother of their four children had been unable to do. She was comfortably defeated by Mr Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential elections.

Thousands of Hollande supporters were last night celebrating victory in central Paris, notably at the site of the Bastille jail that was stormed in 1789 in one of the most symbolic events of the French Revolution, and in Tulle, in the political heartland of the Corrèze in southwestern France. Even before the official announcements, many were chanting - "we've won".

Mr Hollande, who has never held government office, was earlier in breezy mood as he voted in Tulle, saying he hoped it would be a "good day for France".

Mr Sarkozy avoided comment when he and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, cast their votes in the chic 16th arrondissement of Paris.

But a rally planned for the Place de La Concorde by his centre-right UMP party was later cancelled as polling estimates showed him heading for defeat.

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.

He thanked his supporters and said he did his best to win a second term. "I take responsibility ... for the defeat," he said. While Mr Sarkozy said during the campaign he would leave public life, he stopped short yesterday of confirming his retirement.

Mr Hollande won the first round a two weeks ago with a 28.6 per cent share of the vote, 1.4 per cent ahead of his centre-right rival. He was assured of the votes of an overwhelming majority of those who supported far-left candidates, prompting critics to allege that he would be a hostage to militants anxious to push him further to the left.

By contrast, Mr Sarkozy, while cutting the lead projected in all opinion polls, was unable to persuade enough of the 18 per cent voters siding with Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National (FN), to rally to his cause.

Miss Le Pen said yesterday she had kept her promise to register a blank vote, a formal version of abstaining. She had left it to supporters to vote according to conscience, though it was clear many intended to follow her lead.

Mr Hollande's presumption of victory - he began 16 sentences, in quick succession during last week's televised head-to-head debate, with the phrase "I, as president of the republic" - had caused some irritation.

But Mr Sarkozy was criticised for his desperate attempts to court FN voters; a key centrist, François Bayrou, who won nine per cent of the vote on April 22, was alienated to the extent that he announced last Thursday he would vote for Mr Hollande.

For the French left, yesterday's result represented a historic achievement. The last socialist president, François Mitterrand, held office from 1981 until 1995, since when the Socialist Party has had to make to with one period of power in parliament.

In June's legislative elections Mr Hollande will be hoping the socialists avoid an uneasy "cohabitation" with the centre-right by replacing Mr Sarkozy's UMP party in parliament as they have done at the Elysée.

Conservative leaders in neighbouring countries will be alarmed by his success.

His tax-and-spend programme is designed to boost growth while still tackling the public deficit that burdens the French economy. But one British Conservative, Daniel Hannan, a member of the European parliament, tweeted last night that his victory, and gains by communist in yesterday's Greek elections, showed that anyone believing Europe was "out of the woods" should think again.

Top earners are Mr Hollande's prime targets, with a 75 per cent tax planned on annual income above €1 million (Dh4.8 million), but Sarkozy allies have forecast a ''bloodbath'' for the middle class.

There was a suspicion throughout the campaign that neither candidate was favoured with great enthusiasm by the French electorate.

But the promise of change won appeal in yet another European country weary of austerity, even if many economic analysts warn that Mr Hollande, too, will have to resort to painful measures if France is to meet fiscal targets.

One key adviser, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said one of his first conversations as president would be with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who openly supported his rival.

Mr Hollande set himself on a collision course with eurozone partners by making it a campaign pledge to renegotiate the pact hammered out by Mr Sarkozy and Ms Merkel in response to Europe's debt crisis and the threat to the single currency.

But he stresses his commitment to the strong Franco-German ties that historically lie at the heart of the European Union.

Although the global international crisis hampered Mr Sarkozy's efforts to introduce the radical reforms he considered vital to France's future, he was also a victim of his own abrasive style and failures on cornerstone policies.

Ms Le Pen ridiculed his attempts to cut immigration with such effect that his campaign pledges, even on that issue, seemed hollow. And instead of reducing unemployment to five per cent, he had presided over a rise to 10 per cent, leaving workers increasingly insecure in their jobs.

Alain Juppe, the foreign minister, identified the other obstacle: a rejection by many voters, even on the right, of his personality. But for that, Mr Juppe said recently, Mr Sarkozy would have won 60 per cent public support - an electoral landslide.