France gets new leader, Europe new direction

PARIS (AP) — France handed the presidency Sunday to leftist Francois Hollande, a champion of government stimulus programs who says the state should protect the downtrodden — a victory that could deal a death blow to the drive for austerity that has been the hallmark of Europe in recent years.

Hollande narrowly defeated the hard-driving, attention-getting Nicolas Sarkozy, an America-friendly leader who led France through its worst economic troubles since World War II but whose policies and personality proved too bitter for many voters to swallow.

Mild and affable, the president-elect inherits a country deep in debt and divided over how to integrate immigrants while preserving its national identity. Markets will closely watch his initial moves as president. He will take office no later than May 16.

Hollande portrayed himself as a vehicle for change across Europe.

“In all the capitals ... there are people who thanks to us, who are hoping, who are looking to us, and who want to finish with austerity,” he told exuberant crowds of supporters in a speech early Monday at Paris’ Place de la Bastille. “You are a movement lifting up everywhere in Europe, and perhaps the world.”

The party reached into the night on the iconic plaza of the French Revolution, with revelers waving all kinds of flags and climbing the base of its central column. Leftists are overjoyed to have one of their own in power for the first time since Socialist Francois Mitterrand was president from 1981 to 1995.

Sarkozy is the latest victim of a wave of voter anger over spending cuts in Europe that has ousted governments and leaders in the past couple of years.

In France, with 95 percent of the vote counted, official results showed Hollande with 51.6 percent of the vote compared with Sarkozy’s 48.4 percent, the Interior Ministry said. The turnout was a strong 81 percent.

Germany’s Angela Merkel called Hollande to congratulate him on his victory. Hollande has said his first trip would be to Berlin. Merkel’s foreign minister joined calls for a growth pact — but one that doesn’t necessarily require more spending.

Hollande will also head soon to the United States for summits of NATO — where he will announce he is pulling French troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year — and the Group of Eight leading world economies.

Meanwhile five other European countries held elections Sunday.

GREECE: Greeks punish the two main parties in parliamentary elections, with official projections showing both hemorrhaging support and no party gaining enough votes to form a government. The results could affect the country’s course as it grapples with a debt crisis that has shaken world markets.

SERBIA: The nation of 7.1 million people in southeast Europe holds presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections. The outcomes could affect Serbia’s relations with the European Union as well as Kosovo.

GERMANY: Exit polls show voters in Germany’s northernmost state have likely ousted a governing center-right government made up of the same parties as the federal coalition, a blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel. About 2.24 million people are eligible to vote in Schleswig-Holstein state.

ITALY: It’s the nation’s first election since Premier Mario Monti was tapped to save Italy from its debt crisis. The vote could gauge public anger against parties supporting his austerity measures. Some 9.5 million Italians were eligible to vote Sunday and Monday for 942 city councils and mayorships.

ARMENIA: Some 2.5 million Armenians are eligible to vote for a new parliament in an election the nation’s president hopes will give him a legislative majority. President Serge Sarkisian’s Republican Party is expected to win.

but it wants the majority in the 131-seat parliament to avoid having to form a coalition.

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