Hollande's presidency begins with whirlwind day in Paris

French President François Hollande, inaugurated today, spoke about the need for unity and reiterated promises to invest in education.

Guido Bergmann/German Government Press Office/AP
In this picture provided by the German government, German chancellor Angela Merkel talks with new French President Francois Hollande prior to a dinner at the chancellery in Berlin Tuesday.

French President François Hollande said as he was sworn in today at the presidential palace that his presidency would be no easy job, given France's economic difficulties, but vowed to unite the nation.

“I measure today the weight of the problems our country is facing: a massive debt, weak economic growth, a high unemployment rate, a decreased [ability to be] competitive, and a Europe struggling to exit the crisis,” Mr. Hollande said in his inaugural address.  

“No matter our age, no matter our convictions, whether we live on the continent or in oversea territories, in our cities, in our neighborhoods, in our rural areas, we are France,” Hollande said. “Not one France against another but one France united in a common destiny.”

During the 11-minute speech, Hollande sought to distance himself from his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, who was accused by his critics of dividing France by targeting certain portions of the population, such as Muslims or trade unionists, for political gains, particularly during the presidential campaign. 

In another thinly veiled criticism of the former president, whose intense activity earned him the nickname “hyper-president,” Hollande pledged not to rule personally on every topic. “I will set priorities but I won’t decide on everything, for everything and everywhere,” he said.

With today's ceremony, Hollande became the seventh president of the Fifth Republic of France, which marks France's modern political era, and only its second Socialist president, 17 years after Socialist François Mitterrand finished his second term in 1995.

The inauguration was an all-day, optimistic affair filled with symbols and references to French history, punctuated with rain and even hail. Hollande delivered three speeches, paid a visit to the Paris mayor, appointed a new prime minister, and finally, set out on his first official trip abroad: to Germany to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel. He was greeted by supporters at every stop who tried to get as close to him as possible. At his second speech, students clambered on to chairs to get a better view as he approached the stage to deliver a speech on education. 

His trip to Germany was delayed when Hollande's plane was struck by lightning en route to Berlin. As a precaution, the plane turned back and Hollande and those traveling with him were put on a second plane. 

Hollande arrived at the Elysée palace at 10:00 a.m. local time and was welcomed by Sarkozy, according to the inauguration ceremony’s protocol. The two men had a private conversation in which Sarkozy was expected to give Hollande the activation codes for France’s nuclear weapons and transmit other classified information to him.

Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy then walked hand-in-hand to a car awaiting them in the palace’s courtyard, leaving just a few minutes before Hollande’s inauguration speech. Sarkozy supporters, many of whom had gathered on the street outside the palace more than two hours earlier, chanted, “Nicolas merci!” (“Thank you Nicolas!"). 

Hollande left the presidential palace less than two hours after he arrived, continuing his inauguration marathon by driving the Champs-Elysées avenue up to the Arc de Triomphe, where he put a floral wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a historical monument dedicated to the fallen soldiers of World War I. A soaked Hollande then walked toward a crowd of supporters to shake the hands of those who were there in spite of the heavy rain.

Student excitement

The next event, a speech on education and a tribute to world-renowned French scientist Marie Curie, was seen as a sign that Hollande would aim to boost education and research during his five-year term.

In his second speech of the day at Tuileries park, Hollande addressed dozens of students near a statue of Jules Ferry, a 19th-century minister of public instruction who is considered the father of France’s free, secular public education system. He emphasized his commitment to education for all, regardless of  family wealth, and reiterated his campaign promise to add 60,000 jobs in the education sector – a pledge which pleased the education community, which was unhappy with some of Sarkozy's education reforms. 

Teachers tried, with limited success, to keep students calms as they waited for Hollande's arrival. Many took videos and photographs with their cell phones and waved at reporters' cameras excitedly. As the students saw the presidential car pull up about 150 feet away from the stage, they jumped up on their chairs, hoping to catch a glimpse of the president. 

Milarépa Traoré-Peluso, a middle school student, said ahead of the speech that he felt privileged that his class was chosen to attend the event. “It’s a fairly important day,” he said. “I guess not everybody has the opportunity to see the president from so close.”

The speech resonated with the crowd. Gilbert Rochelimagne, a literature teacher at a Paris middle school, said he liked the president's words, particularly the fact that he mentioned Ferry, the founder of the French school system. “That was well put,” Mr. Rochelimagne said of Hollande’s words. “He knows how to speak.”

For his last appearance of the day on French soil, Hollande went to the Paris City Council, where he met with Bertrand Delanoë, the Socialist mayor of the French capital. Hundreds of Parisians had converged to a square outside the building, hoping to see the new president and his partner Valérie Trierweiler.

Paris resident Brigitte Alvin said she was happy to be there even though she only saw Hollande from afar. “I am delighted that he is here,” Ms. Alvin said. “I wanted to see his face.”

Asked why she decided to come, she replied, “To share my happiness. I just wanted to be here.” 

Hollande's visit to Berlin this evening will be closely watched. He has received significant attention for his break with Sarkozy on the German-led austerity drive in the eurozone. Sarkozy was a strong backer of the German approach; Hollande has been critical of its singular focus on spending cuts. 

He repeatedly said during the campaign that he would ask European Union countries to renegotiate a fiscal compact on budgetary discipline that was approved earlier this year by requesting provisions for stimulating economic growth. Merkel publicly opposes this option.

It is not unusual for the French president to choose Berlin for his first trip abroad – it has become a tradition of the Franco-German relationship that has been built since World War II. 

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