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May 05, 2012

France Elects First Socialist President in Nearly Two Decades

by Lisa Bryant

Francois Hollande has been elected France's first Socialist president in nearly two decades, beating incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in a vote marked by anger over austerity measures, high unemployment and the country's lagging economy.  Initial official results of Sunday's vote show Hollande winning with 52 percent of the vote.

Surveys predicted Francois Hollande would be the winner in the second-round runoff.  And the Socialist candidate and his supporters savored the victory.

Thousands of people gathered around the Socialist Party headquarters and the Place de la Bastille in Paris, a historic site of the French Revolution, to celebrate Hollande's victory.  Crowds also packed Hollande's political home base of Tulle in central France, where the president-elect delivered his victory speech.

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Hollande said Europe is watching France and he predicted that his victory would be celebrated in other European countries.  He said it signified that economic austerity is not the final word and that his message is one of growth and prosperity.

Turnout was high, with about 80 percent of eligible voters casting their ballots, higher than during the first round of voting in April.  The strength of the Socialist victory will be determined during France's legislative elections, next month.

In a speech to his supporters, a grim-looking President Nicolas Sarkozy wished Hollande well. Sarkozy said he did as much as he could to protect France from the economic crisis that continues to rock the 17-member eurozone, along with other European countries like Britain.

Some analysts say that Hollande's victory was almost accidental.  He has never held a ministerial post.  A year ago, many French widely expected another Socialist politician,  former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahnm, would be France's next president.  But Strauss-Kahn's political fortunes plummeted after he faced sexual assault charges in New York that were later dropped.

Hollande's call for more spending and economic growth has struck a chord with French voters like 44-year-old Emmanuel Biar, who is weary of France's economic problems and austerity measures under conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy. "I like his [i.e., Hollande's] ideas - immigration, economy - because he would do what he could do.  I don't know how far and because my heart is on the left wing," he said.

Many French also criticize Sarkozy for his flamboyant lifestyle and his perceived inability to fulfill political promises.

Hollande's message for growth has resonated across much of the eurozone, where economic austerity measures have sparked public protests in countries like Greece and Spain.

But financial markets and some European leaders are anxious about France's president-elect.  Critics reject Hollande's call for more government spending when France and other European economies are already deeply in debt.