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Hollande wins French presidency, signals revisit of austerity (+video)

Socialist candidate François Hollande defeated incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy for the French presidency in a vote that could reposition how the country responds to the eurozone crisis.

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As a political figure here, Sarkozy now appears out. Immediately at 8 pm his ruling UMP party issued a statement that he will not lead in parliamentary elections this June. Sarkozy, 57, and elected in 2007 as the youngest French president ever, has steadily said if he lost in 2012 he would retire from politics.

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In a moving speech to his supporters tonight, Sarkozy said: “A new era is beginning. In this new era, I will remain one of you. I share your ideas, your convictions, your ideals. You can count on me to defend them. But my place can no longer be the same.”

“Sarkozy is not a far right guy, but he does what is politically expedient every time, and this time that was a campaign that was totally negative,” says Arun Kapil of Catholic University in Paris. “For Americans that’s not surprising. But it is new in France.”

Hollande takes the reins of Europe’s No. 2 economy and the fifth largest in the world, amid a debt and banking crisis. His aides have been reassuring markets in London, New York, and Frankfurt that he is not a wild-eyed, wild-spending radical but a pragmatic centrist elite whose policies are going to be mainstream.

He is also expected to quickly explore “growth” policies to supplement the austerity orthodoxy that helped fell political leaders in Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Spain, Italy, and Romania.

Hollande last week described himself as a Keynsian on the economy, and he is known to be a pragmatist as well as a product of France’s elite schools. His first trip, expected within days, is to Berlin to visit Chancellor Merkel for a frank conversation on how to include various kinds of stimulus to the “stability pact” signed to by 27 EU nations in January, but which has been criticized by more and more European leaders and, last week, the International Monetary Fund.

Hope for national unity

At polling stations in Paris there seemed little enthusiasm for either candidate. In more than a dozen interviews, French often said they voted for the candidate that would do the least damage at a time when unemployment is 10 percent.

In the 3rd district of Paris, Marie-Laurence Perret, 65, voted for Hollande. The “most urgent thing is to give the French back their confidence,” she says. “Hollande is defending growth and more and more countries [in Europe] are starting to come to that side too.”

Ms. Perret’s friend, Olivier Godet, hopes Hollande can deliver on his promise to promote national unity and wants the social climate to be depolarized and less divided.  

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