It was always going to be a close victory, and it was. In the event, Socialist candidate François Hollande won the night with 51.9% of the vote to Nicolas Sarkozy’s 48.1%. The announcement broadcast at eight-o’clock by the French media drew loud and happy cheers from Hollande’s supporters gathered in Paris and in Tulle,the largest city of his home region of Corrèze.
His supporters are right to rejoice. It has been 17 years since a Socialist won a Presidential election in France. Seventeen long and seemingly interminable years of political stagnation. Yet, when their man finally came, it was not DSK,as previously thought,but François Hollande.
Hollande does not have the political animus or instincts of Nicolas Sarkozy. His appearance resembles that of a provincial town clerk, not of someone from De Gaulle. Equally, he has neither DSK’s charisma nor Mitterrand’s politicking skills. But he was the candidate to beat Sarkozy. Where the incumbent President divided, Hollande sought to unify. Where Sarkozy was a micro-manager with a combative personality, Hollande delegated expertly and never lost his cool.
Tonight, President-Elect Hollande takes his place in the pantheon of French leaders, alongside De Gaulle, Mitterrand, Chirac and (of course) Sarkozy. However, his in-tray is possibly one of the most formidable that a new President has ever faced. There are soaring economic issues, coupled with rising social problems and a big question mark over future French military involvement in Afghanistan. He needs to act fast to reinforce the Franco-German political bond, critical to staving off fiscal crisis,especially after such a tough and Euro-bashing election. Indeed, the issues he faces as President are largely unparalleled in the history of the Fifth French Republic.
As for Nicolas Sarkozy, this ending was never how he could have envisioned an epitaph for his political career. This high-flying and high-octane President has come down to earth with a bump. He will undoubtedly reflect long and hard on what caused such a spectacular fall from grace, after the intoxicating highs of his early Presidency. He may cast himself as the victim, as the fall-guy for a bad economy, combined with astute character-assassinations of his record. Nevertheless, this ignores his mistakes and faults; his perceived arrogance and his inability to connect with the French people. It is for this that he was punished for, not for his record.
Nicolas Sarkozy lost by a razor thin margin, even though he gratuitously and shamelessly appealed for far right votes. He frantically sought the votes of a xenophobic and intolerant political party, hardly a ringing endorsement of his national unity credentials. Sarkozy’s tough rhetoric shocked and stunned; his desperation to win at all costs even more so. In the end, even such last ditch resorts failed to save him from electoral oblivion.
Tonight, as one camp celebrates with champagne and another commiserates over coffees, it is obvious that France has spoken loud and clearly in its demand for change. Yet, as Socialists move to express their joy, they and their president-elect must now face difficult future choices, already appearing on the horizon.
France needs strong leadership at this time of uncertainty and great economic peril. It clamours for a firm hand to guide it though the necessary change and reforms, to emerge intact from a pernicious fiscal crisis. François Hollande has been nominated to take on the task; whether he will be up to it, only time will tell.