Conservative, controversial Sarkozy wins French election

The tough-talking former interior minister beat Socialist Ségolène Royal to take the presidency.

By , Staff writer

It's Sarkozy. France turned right – and the country enters a new era.

After 14 days of a rancorous presidential runoff to install a new, internationally untested generation in Elysee Palace, France decisively chose Nicolas Sarkozy – a sharp-witted son of immigrants who compares himself to patriarch Charles De Gaulle and has championed a "rupture" from France's decades-old system of social welfare.

"The French people want change, and I will accept that mandate, but do it in the spirit of unity and fraternity," Mr. Sarkozy said to cheering crowds in Paris Sunday night. "No one will be left behind; all will have the same opportunity ... we will write a new page of history."

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Mr. Sarkozy defeated Ségolène Royal, a Socialist and would-be first woman French president, in a huge voter turnout on a cool, clear day. With more than two-thirds of the votes counted Sunday evening, Sarkozy had 53 percent and Ms. Royal 47 percent. Voter turnout was projected to be 85 percent.

Ms. Royal battled hard in the final week of the campaign against what she called the "dangerous" choice of Sarkozy, whose get-tough policies would bring civil strife to France, she said.

The election represents a clear victory for the right – possibly a mandate. France has been in a long, self-described drift, a time of deep frustration with political elites and a perceived national decline. Experts have called it a crossroads election, a choice over whether the political right or left will bring the "change" that voters here have passionately been asking for. Sarkozy is the first mainstream French politician to openly identify himself as a candidate of the right.

"Sarkozy found a new formula," says Nicolas Jabko, a political scientist at Sciences Po university in Paris. "Since the 1970s, French presidents have tried to mobilize the center. But Sarkozy has done it by mobilizing the right, especially the far-right voters of Jean-Marie Le Pen."

Royal's defeat is the third straight in France for a once-proud Socialist Party here, and some pundits predict serious soul-searching if not a partial collapse of the left.

"This was a choice between two patterns of life," says Pascal Dessillons, a lawyer emerging from a voting station in a middle-class district of Paris, his granddaughter in tow. "Do we want everything based on the strength of the state, with help for everybody, or do we want to choose a future where men and women have to take responsibility, and consider the value of work?

"There are countries where things work, where people work. Why can't we be one of them? We need a new General De Gaulle."

Yet many of those voting for Royal say they were voting against Sarkozy, whose volatile temperament and law-and-order dictates as Minister of the Interior seem to have made him a person that French either love or hate.

Julie Lochard, a computer-supplies salesperson, voted for Royal, "But I didn't vote with pleasure," she says. "I voted for democracy, because I don't feel Sarkozy understands the concept. He is not for the freedom of all the people."

Along with Sarkozy's promise to shake France out of its socialist policies, including those that make it difficult to hire and fire employees, the 35-hour workweek, welfare and pensions, and the influence of a vast state system run by functionaires, some pundits feel Sarkozy's promise to crack down on immigrants in the restive suburbs may have resonated the deepest.

"This is a major crystallization of one thing – a backlash on the part of middle-class France against the banlieue, against the riots of 2005, the Gard Du Nord riots, new immigrant groups," says Arun Kapil, a political scientist at the American University in Paris. "Sarkozy ran on this issue, and he won on it. He's a brilliant politician, and people listen to him."

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