Socialist challenger Francois Hollande on Sunday became President of France, ousting Conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. He won with 51.9 per cent of the votes against Mr. Sarkozy's score of 48.1 per cent.

There was loud cheering at the Socialist headquarters in Paris and Thomas, son of Segolene Royal and Mr. Hollande who were partners for some 22 years, burst into tears of joy.

Mr. Hollande had spent the day in Thule, his constituency in the Correze region in France with his new companion Valerie Trierweiler and he addressed a sea of supporters sheltering under umbrellas in pelting rain. The first person to react was Ms. Royal, who said his victory was “more than merited since he had presented a coherent and honest programme to govern. His programme is based on social justice and equality for all. It aims to protect the most vulnerable and will concentrate on pulling the country out of its current economic crisis. After what we lived through for five years, this victory should surprise no one,” she said.

This is a major victory for the Socialists who return to power after a gap of 17 years. In the vote in 2002, extreme right leader Jean Marie Le Pen eliminated Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin in the first round. The mobilisation in the Socialist camp has been phenomenal because the left has never digested that humiliation.

Mr. Sarkozy now becomes the second President in France's current Vth Republic (constituted in 1958) to serve just one term. The other President who failed to get a second term was also a Conservative, Valery Giscard D'estaing.

Stormy tenure

Mr. Sarkozy has all along faced difficulty defending his five years in office. He has been a sharply polarising President and in the last few weeks of campaigning he took a sharp turn to the right, courting voters from the extreme right xenophobic, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant National Front Party.

The two men in Sunday's face-off appear to have polarised France.

The mild-mannered Mr. Hollande, who a year ago appeared to be the most unlikely candidate to ever face Mr. Sarkozy, seems to have grown in stature during the past three months. He retains his quiet restraint, but has shown he is capable of flashes of steel as was evident in last Wednesday's televised debate when he refused to allow Mr. Sarkozy's aggressiveness to destabilise or undermine him. The 57-year-old Mr. Hollande has been active in Socialist politics for more than 30 years and is a Member of Parliament from the Correze region of France. Although he has no ministerial experience, he served as a close presidential aide to Francois Mitterrand at the Elysee Palace. He also has immense organisational experience as general secretary of the Socialist Party, winning key legislative, municipal, regional and European elections.

He was general secretary when his partner Segolene Royal lost to Mr. Sarkozy and political gossips say her defeat was partly due to the fact that Mr. Hollande failed to give her wide party support (he was reportedly having an affair with his current partner, journalist Valerie Trierweiler). Mr. Hollande and Ms. Royal were together for 22 years — the couple have four children — and one of the most dramatic moments in this campaign came when she publicly endorsed his presidential bid. Most party colleagues who consider him witty, affable and a bon vivant were astounded by his dogged determination to run for the highest office in the land.

Although Mr. Hollande has said he will opt for “soft” left wing policies, he has nevertheless said he will slap a 75 per cent income tax on anyone earning over 1 million Euros per annum. He has also promised to subsidise water, electricity and fuel, hire 60,000 teachers and close down France's oldest nuclear plant at Fessenheim in the country's north-east. Mr. Hollande has also promised to re-negotiate the EU's fiscal discipline pact to include a growth and investment clause. He has promised the creation of a Public Investment Bank, huge infrastructure projects to get the economy going again, but has remained hazy about where he will find the money for the additional spending.

In contrast, Mr. Sarkozy has been pugnacious, aggressive, highly intelligent and capable but impulsive and changeable.

Mr. Sarkozy came to office promising to wipe out unemployment (‘work more to earn more' was one of his slogans) break with France's past history of state intervention and cosy relationships at the top, reform the deficit-ridden pension and health care systems, overhaul universities and overturn the 35-hour work week. He undertook several reforms but often appeared to change course mid-way and has failed to fulfil his promises.

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