François Hollande's victory in the French presidential election is notable on several counts. He has ensured the Socialists' return to power after 17 years in the political wilderness. In doing so, he has effaced the humiliation suffered by the Parti Socialist (PS) in 2002, when Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was bundled out of the first round by the extreme right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Today, it is the extremist supporters of his daughter, Marine Le Pen, who have helped outgoing conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy reduce Mr. Hollande's margin of victory to a sliver. Mr. Sarkozy exploited a sense of cultural insecurity and economic vulnerability which led even traditional leftist voters to back the far right. Even so, Mr. Hollande's low-key approach, which includes a commitment to higher taxes for large corporations and high earners, served him well against the self-promotional style of Mr. Sarkozy. In effect, the country's 44.5 million voters have shown that they are generally more concerned about unemployment and the maintenance of a mixed economy — which has made France one of the world's most powerful and successful post-war economies — than they are about, for example, immigration.
While the celebrations by PS supporters at Paris's iconic Place de la Bastille and elsewhere across the country were understandable, the figure of 51.7 per cent to 48.3 does not amount to the resounding victory the French Left badly wanted. The abstention rate of 19.6 per cent also indicates wider public disaffection with the political climate as a whole, which Mr. Hollande may not be able to alter soon. The new President will face other challenges too. He is the first leader of a major power to criticise the austerity strategies which have dominated global politics since the 2007-8 financial crash; but European Union rules on budget deficits will make it difficult for him actively to stimulate the economy. Secondly, his economic views are in stark contrast to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a Franco-German tussle is perhaps the last thing a crisis-ridden European Union needs. Thirdly, his relative inexperience — he has never been a minister before — could prove a liability. On the positive side, however, 21 of metropolitan France's 22 regions are held by a broad left or left-green front. Mr. Hollande can, therefore, count on grassroots support for a policy approach which rejects the shibboleths of fiscal austerity, though his first test will be the rates at which France can borrow debt-servicing money on 16 May, the day after he is sworn in. There will be no honeymoon period for the new occupant of the Élysée Palace. The hard work has already started.