PARIS — “The crowds are already gathering at the Place de la Bastille,” Francois Picard, host of the much-watched “France24 (television)Debate,” emailed me at 6:00 p.m. Sunday evening, two hours before polls closed in the French presidential election. He was referring to the neighborhood of the storied French prison, the traditional gathering place of French Socialists on election night.
At 8:00, one could clearly realize why the crowds gathered so early, as French television networks quickly projected what had become increasingly obvious in the last few days: that by a margin of 52-to-48 percent, Francois Hollande would be elected France’s first Socialist president in 17 years, and thus made conservative opponent Nicolas Sarkozy only the second sitting president in the history of the 54-year-old Fifth French Republic to be defeated.
Despite his magnetism, his presence on the world stage, his hard-line on immigration and multiculturalism, and his strong performance in the campaign’s only televised debate Wednesday night, Sarkozy could not overcome voter animosity directed at him over the increasing economic uncertainty that now grips Europe.
Not even the president’s wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and the recent birth of their daughter Giulia could convince voters to give him another term. Like the leaders of Portugal, Spain, and Ireland — all of whom have been elected to replace leaders of the opposition party in the last year — all Hollande had to do was be “the other guy” in a contest with an unpopular incumbent.
“Monsieur Who?” is the likely reaction of official Washington and most Americans to the triumph of longtime Socialist Party General Secretary (Chairman) Hollande. Where veteran Cabinet Minister Sarkozy was well-known in the U.S. before becoming president in 2007, the 57-year-old Hollande has never been a Cabinet minister and never held an office higher than his seat in the National Assembly. An attempt by Hollande’s campaign to arrange a photo opportunity with President Obama in the Oval Office never worked out.
Obama will likely call him soon and have his first encounter with the new “man in Paris” when Hollande arrives at Camp David for the G-8 summit May 18-19 (He will be inaugurated on May 16). From there, Hollande jets to Chicago for the NATO summit May 20-21.
At both meetings, Hollande is expected to underscore to Obama his promise to withdraw French troops from the NATO mission in Afghanistan by the end of 2012 — a year earlier than Sarkozy had planned.
In meeting Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Ministers David Cameron of the United Kingdom and Mario Monti of Italy, the French Socialist will be sitting down with three center-right leaders who made no secret of their preference for Sarkozy. Hollande has already ruffled Merkel’s feathers by promising to “renegotiate`’ the fiscal compact of the Eurozone, which is designed to curb deficit spending by its signers and favors German-style austerity measures.
Where all three center-right European leaders have embraced major spending cuts and minimal tax increases to battle the debt that leaves Europe nervous about its future, Hollande wants major tax increases and has showed few signs of wanting to cut anything. Following elections for a new parliament in June, Hollande is expected to call for a budget with a 75 percent tax rate on those who make one million euros a year or more, a new inheritance tax, higher corporate taxes and taxes on assets — in other words, the polar opposite approach of Britain’s Cameron, who seeks to cut taxes on corporations and higher income earners.
The real enemy of the people, Hollande said on the campaign trail, is “the world of finance.”
As the race for president ended Sunday, talk was already starting about the parliamentary elections in June. Historically, French voters have followed the election of a president with that of a majority in parliament for his party. Now more than a few pundits believe Sarkozy’s UMP (conservative) party could actually hold on to its parliamentary majority and thus block Hollande’s choices for premier and the Cabinet. Already, speculation was rampant that Hollande planned to name arch-leftist Martine Aubry, the architect of France’s 35-hour work week and his rival for nomination as president, to be premier.
For French voters, May 6 was a day of change and celebration. But the next chapter of Francois Hollande’s dramatic rise to power — whether voters fully embrace his left of center-agenda and how it impacts on the U.S. and France’s European neighbors — has yet to be written.
Photo caption: Political Editor John Gizzi stands outside voting machines at the 16th Arrondisement (district) in Paris on May 6.