France election: A vote for change

Hollande supporters at the Bastille in Paris (6 May 2012) Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Hollande decided the French people were more concerned by unemployment than immigration

France has voted for change. For only the second time during the Fifth Republic the people have voted to put a socialist in the Elysee Palace. The French left has not won in a quarter of a century.

For Europe too this is a momentous event. For a long time the centre right has held the stage; now a socialist has won and European politics will feel the shudder.

Francois Hollande ran a shrewd campaign. He detected weariness with the high-octane presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. He made a virtue out of being ordinary. He portrayed himself as a "Mr Normal" - a man to reassure the French public.

During a long campaign, his message was consistent. The economic policies of Nicolas Sarkozy, he said, had failed. Without growth there could be no recovery, he insisted.


With change comes uncertainty both for France and for Europe. Mr Hollande has never held government office. He is untested. He has promised to increase spending whilst balancing the budget, mainly through tax increases.

The truth is that if France is to bring its budget deficit down to 3% by 2013 then 18bn euros of cuts will have to be found next year. How that will be done did not receive much attention during the campaign.

Before the first round of voting Francois Hollande spoke the language of the left. "My true adversary in this battle," he said "has no name, no face, no party... it is the world of finance."

He promised to create 60,000 new education posts. He promised to squeeze the rich. "The soul of France is equality," he said.

During the second round we heard far less of this. By this time he knew he could depend on the votes of the far left. No more offerings needed to be made.

Europe holds its breath

In office, however, he will be cautious and pragmatic, more of a social democrat than a socialist. He knows that the markets will be watching.

He cannot afford to see France's borrowing costs driven up. In reality his room for manoeuvre will be limited. During the campaign, President Sarkozy warned that an Hollande presidency would take France on the road to Greece and indulge in a festival of spending. His advisers are acutely aware of the dangers and they have already held conversations with top business people.

The rest of Europe will hold its breath. He has promised to make growth rather than austerity his priority. In saying this he challenges the German prescription for solving the eurozone crisis.

He simply does not believe that austerity first is working. His first official meeting after he is sworn in will be with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

He has said that he will re-negotiate the pact that enforces greater discipline in the eurozone. Mrs Merkel has been quite clear: there will be no renegotiation. Mr Hollande says it is "not for Germany to decide the future of Europe".

He will be out to reclaim French influence over the future direction of the EU.

Jump-start for EU

But there are early signs of compromise. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has said that they "will add a growth pact to the budget (fiscal) treaty".

Already Mr Hollande has changed the debate in Europe. Germany is more isolated than it was two months ago. The discussion now is how to jump-start the European economy. There is talk of increasing spending on infrastructure projects. The EU might relax its targets for cutting deficits.

Part of Mr Hollande's appeal was that he promised to defend the French social model and save what is called "French exceptionalism".

He has said that for certain people the pension age - only recently increased to 62 - will drop back to 60.

The 35-hour week will stay. It led some to see France as a country in denial, nostalgic for its past and seeking safety from a globalised economy. In office he will have to address the fundamental issue of whether the French way of life with its high social costs is sustainable.

'Get lost'

As for Nicolas Sarkozy, the election became not just about a stagnating economy but about himself. A significant number of French people did not like his style. They did not expect a president to tell an awkward farmer to "get lost". They disliked his aggression and the cascade of ideas.

He came to power promising to modernise France. There was to be a "rupture" with the past. In the event his reforms were modest. He energetically fought the eurozone crisis, shoulder to shoulder with Angela Merkel, but unemployment rose to close to 10%. He led the West's response to Colonel Gaddafi but military campaigns rarely win elections.

He was the most brilliant politician of his generation but as he himself admitted he did not always act as the French people expected of a president. He lacked reserve.

During the campaign he made immigration, the movement of jobs abroad and open borders his big issues. "Europe," he said, "has given in too much to free trade and deregulation." He detected the French people felt insecure.

In the second round of the campaign he focused on these issues that are the natural territory of the far right whose votes he needed. It was a tactic without much prospect of success. The far right mistrusted him; he had spoken their language before and had not delivered.

Sarkozy mystery

In any event, the French people - as Mr Hollande observed - were less bothered by immigration and more concerned with unemployment.

It was one of the mysteries of the latter stages of the campaign that President Sarkozy did not focus more on the dangers of the eurozone crisis and of the risks of turning to an untested leader.

He believed that his relationship with the German chancellor was his trump card. He even considered her coming to campaign for him. The idea backfired.

In the end there was no consistency to his message. Mr Hollande did not seem dangerous. He cast himself in the mould of his mentor Francois Mitterrand. Mr Sarkozy made the fatal mistake of underestimating his rival, a man he regarded as useless.

He was an impulsive, energetic leader who became the latest of a long line of politicians to be destroyed by the eurozone crisis and by his own flaws.