Socialist François Hollande defeated conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday to become France's next president, heralding a change in how Europe tackles its debt crisis and how France flexes its military and diplomatic muscle around the world.
Exuberant, diverse crowds filled the Place de la Bastille, the iconic plaza of the French Revolution, to fete Hollande's victory, waving French, European and labour union flags and climbing the column that rises at its centre. Leftists are overjoyed to have one of their own in power for the first time since Socialist François Mitterrand was president from 1981 to 1995.
"Austerity can no longer be inevitable!" Hollande declared in his victory speech Sunday night after a surprising campaign that saw him transform from an unremarkable, mild figure to an increasingly statesmanlike one.
Sarkozy is the latest victim of a wave of voter anger at government spending cuts around Europe that have tossed out governments and leaders over the past couple of years.
Hollande promised help for France's downtrodden after years under the Sarkozy, a man many voters saw as too friendly with the rich and blamed for economic troubles.
"I am proud to have been capable of giving people hope again," Hollande told huge crowds of supporters in his electoral fiefdom of Tulle in central France. "We will succeed!"
Hollande inherits an economy that's a driver of the European Union but is deep in debt. He wants more government stimulus, and more government spending in general, despite concerns in the markets that France needs to urgently trim its huge debt.
Sarkozy disliked for budget cuts
Sarkozy conceded defeat minutes after the polls closed, saying he had called Hollande to wish him "good luck" as the country's new leader.
Sarkozy, widely disliked for budget cuts and his handling of the economy during recent crises, said he did his best to win a second term, despite widespread anger at his handling of the economy.
"I bear responsibility ... for the defeat," he said. "I committed myself totally, fully, but I didn't succeed in convincing a majority of French. ... I didn't succeed in making the values we share win."
With 75 per cent of the vote counted, official results showed Hollande with 51.1 per cent of the vote compared with Sarkozy's 48.9 per cent, the Interior Ministry said.
Hollande's first challenge will be dealing with Germany: He wants to re-negotiate a hard-won European treaty on budget cuts that Germany's Angela Merkel and Sarkozy had championed. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle congratulated Hollande and called for a jointly drafted growth pact.
"Overcoming the debt crisis is a joint objective, a German-French objective," Westerwelle said.
Favours allowing retirement at age 60
At home, Hollande has pledged to tax the very rich at 75 per cent of their income, an idea that proved wildly popular among the majority of people who don't make nearly that much. But the measure would only bring in a relatively small amount to the budget.
Hollande wants to modify one of Sarkozy's key reforms, over the retirement age, to allow some people to retire at 60 instead of 62. He also plans to increase spending in a range of sectors and wants to ease France off its dependence on nuclear energy. He also favours legalizing euthanasia and gay marriage
"The Socialists fought a very long and very hard campaign. It's been a full year, really, that they've been on the campaign trail. They had a lot of back and forth on what policies they should have," GRN (Global Radio News) reporter Catherine Fields told CBC News.
The Socialist win is a bitter pill for Sarkozy, she reported from Paris.
"It's difficult for a French president to be voted out of office after only one term. There's only been one other in the last 30 years that that's happened to," she said. " He's not a man who likes defeat. He's not a man who gives up easily."
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