Francois Hollande, 57, came from behind to slowly and steadily gain ground to outpoll incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy, also 57, in the run-off held on May 6 to become the first Socialist president in 17 years. Although analysts had predicted a "razor sharp" margin of difference between the eventual victor and the loser, Hollande collected 52 per cent of the votes as against Sarkozyís 48 per cent. Opinion polls had also indicated a neck-and-neck race.
Sarkozy, who lost the first round on April 22, but entered the final round to face his Socialist opponent head on two weeks later, could not withstand the changing tide of the times. Voters were not impressed by his flashy style and talks that sounded stale without alleviating the economic problems.
Analysts expressed surprise over "right-wing" leader Marine Le Penís performance that saw her obtain 18. 5 per cent votes in the first round, even if trailing behind the first two contenders in a contest that had 11 candidates for the top job in Europeís second largest economy. Voters were, apparently, not the least surprised; they made their voice loud and clear. Sarkozyís appeal to Le Penís supporters did not make any impression on voters whose turnout was 81 per cent.
Marie Le Pen, 53, daughter of octogenarian Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Holocaust denying demagogue, refused to back either of the finalists and cast a blank vote, declaring, "They all are the same."
Being back in power after nearly two decades - Francois Mitterand was the last Socialist president (1981 to 1995) - Hollandeís party members and leftist groups in the rest of Europe are enthusiastic about the change of guards in Paris. The newly inaugurated president, Hollande, 57, has raised anxiety among quite a few European capitals that watch and worry that the change in Paris might sound a death blow to the European Unionís drive for austerity.
Deep in debt and divided over issues pertaining to the integration of immigrants and the emphasis on maintaining its national identity, France has many economic and social issues to be addressed. Hollandeís inaugural address was far from assuring for many of his European counterparts who are strongly for accelerating the austerity drive. After his victory, he reiterated: "Austerity can no longer be inevitable!" He added: "In all capitals, there are people who, thanks to us, are hoping, are looking to us, and want to finish with austerity."
The ensuing months should indicate how the new president will steer the course of action. Prior to elections, Hollande stood for drastic cuts in spending and significantly higher taxes for the wealthy. Now that he is in power, his top priority is expected to be creating jobs for a growing number of youths frustrated over the limited job market.
The Muslim population in France is estimated at "up to" 10 per cent of the total population of 65million. Addressing their concerns will exact attention and energy in the coming years. This is an issue that will take up more time than any time in the past, whether the conservatives or socialists are in power.
As for the opposition, Sarkozyís UMP party will have to pick the pieces of the May defeat and learn to be in the opposition benches after so many years in power. A year ago, the UMP seemed to be in a comfortable position. The party might have expected to accrue votes for Sarkozy for leading the intervention of foreign powers in the oil-rich North African state of Libya, on the other side of the Mediterranean, which ultimately saw the end of Moammer Khadafiís rule.
But voters were worried more about domestic issues than political changes in a country with which they have very little in common. Sarkozy was not seen as a war leader because of the nature and character of the war in Libya, with other forces behind the see-through game plan.
In the first round of elections, Sarkozy obtained 27.18 per cent of the votes as against Hollandeís 28.63 per cent. Two weeks later, the four per cent difference between the finalists was no razor-sharp margin as some suggest. Failure to bring down unemployment was the single-most factor that went against the Union for a Popular Movement president who became the countryís first incumbent head of state since 1958 to lose in the first round. The defeat is attributed to consequence of voter anger over spending cuts.
Sarkozy, notorious for his mercurial nature, not long ago lost his temper and branded a group of journalists "pedophiles" for quizzing him over a corruption scandal. Furious over media disclosures against him, the French leader, at the 2011 NATO summit in Lisbon, targeted a reporter who asked him about a scandal involving him personally.
Terming the allegations "crazy", Sarkozy angrily told the reporter: "You talk rubbish, you verify nothing. You are a pedophile." Such reaction indicated the nature and character of an individual. It also does not boost a presidential image of the positive kind.
Question of action
The UMP should review their position and formulate a new course of action to regain what they have lost and could lose in Parliament if timely changes in their policy are not made. Who should lead the party is another crucial question.
As for the Marie Le Penís National Front, the more than 18 per cent of votes polled by its leader underscored the shifting mood among the French people in an exercise that recorded 80 per cent of the eligible voters turn out to give their verdict. Le Pen will leave no room to consolidate her partyís recent gains. In the 1990s, the senior Le Pen was the prime minister when the conservatives followed by the Socialists were in power.
President Hollande does not have the luxury of enjoying any extended "honeymoon" in office. He is expected to begin formulating policies and programmes early. His stand against the austerity measures, which are accepted keenly in much of the EU, will confront criticisms. Above all, job creation remains the key factor that the French are most interested in.
At a time when the news media are suggesting that Hollande has grown in stature and statesmanship since the election campaign and after taking over from Sarkozy, it is the economy that will rate the presidentís performance more than anything else. Hollandeís hopes are pinned on this. Let his act unfold or the party will have to fold from power in the elections.