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Personality, not economics, lost Sarkozy the presidency

French President Nicolas Sarkozy awaits the Ivorian president on May 7, in Paris, one day after his election defeat.

Story highlights

  • Francois Hollande appeared as Mr. Normal from first few minutes of his election, says Agnes Poirier
  • She says French didn't oust Sarkozy over financial crisis; they ousted Sarkozy on his personality
  • Hollande faces big challenge: firstly in parliamentary elections in a month when he seeks majority
  • He doesn't need to be convinced that Germany is France's most important ally, Poirier says

Two hours before the official results of the French presidential elections, no Paris visitor could ignore that a historical political change was about to happen. Down Paris' Left Bank boulevards, throngs of flag-waving young and not-so-young people were flocking towards the Socialist headquarters near the National Assembly. Cyclists were ringing their bells, cars blowing their horns and François Hollande's sympathizers chanting "Victoire!" Nicolas Sarkozy had just canceled a planned celebration at Concorde and the place, where the guillotine once stood, was alarmingly quiet and deserted.

However, as is traditional in presidential elections, France waited for the traditional countdown at 8 p.m. sharp to see the face of their next president and to start celebrating or commiserating. With 51.7% of the votes, the Socialist candidate François Hollande won a neat victory, albeit not a large one. His first few hours as president struck a different tone to Sarkozy's victory in 2007. He addressed the nation from Corrèze, his regional bastion in the heart of France,and his speech was then followed by accordionists playing "La Vie en Rose." He then hopped in a modest-looking car to reach the nearest airport and fly to Paris to go straight to the Bastille where 100,000 people waited until after midnight to hear him speak again. No flashy restaurant on the Champs Elysées, no celebrities behind him, no cortege of expensive cars: Hollande appeared as Mr. Normal from the first few minutes of his election.

Here lies perhaps the key to his election. Unlike the rest of Europe, where governments collapsed under the euro crisis's burden, the French didn't sanction Sarkozy for his management of the financial crisis, which in fact many consider good. They ousted Sarkozy on his personality. In the last five years, they had grown to detest the man even more than his policies. The TV debate which traditionally puts the two candidates against each other just before the second round of the elections and which was followed by 18 million people showed the two men's strikingly different styles. Sarkozy appeared as the never-ending attacker who always tried to push his rival into mistakes. Hollande looked a much calmer presence who excelled both in ducking blows and holding his ground.

Agnes Poirier

If the street celebrations lasted till dawn in the streets of France, however, the honeymoon shouldn't last very long for Hollande, who was already on the phone to German chancellor Angela Merkel an hour after being elected. His task is immense. First, he must reassure the markets while pushing for a growth pact alongside the already negotiated fiscal pact. He may not even wait for the traditional week before the official handover to start his presidency. His agenda for the next few days and weeks looks extremely busy. On May 17, Hollande must meet President Obama in Washington. The two men have never met and Hollande is an unknown entity in the U.S. The following two days, on May 18 and 19, Hollande will attend the G8 at Camp David and then on to the NATO summit in Chicago, where the French president will announce the earlier withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan, an announcement which should not please the U.S. administration and Nato allies.

In France, the next hurdle will come in a month when the newly elected president will ask the French to give him a clear majority at the National Assembly. A large majority would give the Socialist government room for maneuvering and real legitimacy when dealing with other European partners.

At the Bastille yesterday, Hollande stated very clearly his intent to spear a new anti-austerity movement in Europe and the world at large. The challenge is momentous. He must first convince Merkel to let the ECB play a bigger part in the euro's recovery. Will Hollande succeed where Sarkozy failed? It is possible, after all. Merkel and Hollande may belong to two different political families; this detail alone never derailed the formidable entente between Mitterrand and Kohl. Besides, Hollande doesn't need being convinced that Germany is France's most important ally. In 2007, Sarkozy very openly snubbed Merkel, by looking instead towards the U.S. and Britain. Only circumstances made him reconsider. Merkozy was never a natural duo.

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At home, Hollande will start by making a few symbolic gestures: lower the retirement age from 62 to 60 for a fraction of the workforce, specifically those who started working in their mid-teens; he will raise students' scholarships; and stop the haemorrhage of teachers in the education sector, in his eyes, the most important battleground in France and the key to its future. These decisions are not going to deepen the public deficit much; they will however go a long way to signify that Sarkozysm is now extinct. And it is precisely what a majority of French people want to hear at present.