PARIS - Francois Hollande defeated President Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday, becoming the first Socialist elected president of France since Francois Mitterrand. Hollande campaigned on a gentler and more inclusive France, but his victory will also be seen as a challenge to the German-dominated vision of economic austerity as a way out of the euro crisis.
Sarkozy became the latest European leader to lose his post amid economic upheaval and the first French incumbent to be rejected since 1981.
In his five years in office, he propelled France, and himself, into a more central role in world affairs, rejoining the NATO military command and helping drive an international military campaign in Libya. He also proved to be a difficult but crucial ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany in their joint effort to master the European debt and currency crisis and save the euro.
That project, however, received multiple blows Sunday, when Greek voters sent their own message against austerity. [Story, A3.] They handed the two main parties, both of which had pledged to follow harsh international bailout terms, significant losses as they streamed to parties on the far left and far right that have opposed budget cuts. In the process, voters cast into question the ability of any party to form a government soon, let alone continue with the austerity program.
For their part, French voters may not like belt-tightening, but both Hollande and Sarkozy have promised to balance the budget in the next five years.
The balance between reducing the debt and addressing popular anger is proving complicated for Europeans, and Hollande has said that he intends to give “a new direction to Europe,’’ demanding that a European Union treaty limiting debt be expanded to include measures to produce economic growth. Domestically, he has promised to raise taxes on big corporations and raise the tax rate to 75 percent for those earning more than 1 million euros a year.
Calling his victory “a fresh start,’’ Hollande pronounced: “Austerity need not be Europe’s fate.’’
The vote was viewed domestically as a rejection of the unpopular Sarkozy and his relentless effort to appeal to the voters of the far-right National Front.
“I take the measure of the honor that’s been given me and the challenge that awaits me,’’ Hollande said before cheering supporters in the central French town of Tulle, which he represents in Parliament.
Hollande’s victory was narrow but undisputed. With 95 percent of the vote counted, official results showed him with 51.6 percent of the vote while Sarkozy, of the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, had 48.4 percent, the Associated Press reported.
While thanking Sarkozy for his service to France, Hollande said: “Too many divisions, too many wounds, too many ruptures, too many cuts have separated our fellow citizens from one another. That’s all finished.’’
After weeks of energetic, and at times bellicose, campaigning, Sarkozy was gracious in defeat. “Francois Hollande is the president of the republic, he must be respected,’’ Sarkozy said after calling Hollande to congratulate him. “I want to wish him good luck in the midst of these tests.’’
Speaking earlier to party members, Sarkozy said that he would not lead the party into June’s legislative elections and that now, “I become a citizen among you.’’ He urged supporters not to give in to division, though, as he saw those elections as winnable for the party.
The French and Greek elections were closely watched in European capitals and particularly in Berlin, where Merkel has led the drive to cure the eurozone debt and banking crisis with deep budget cuts and caps on future spending. She spoke on the telephone with Hollande on Sunday night, congratulating him on his victory, according to a statement by her spokesman, Steffen Seibert. Hollande has said for months that his first trip will be to Berlin.
But Merkel herself was embroiled in electoral politics on Sunday, suffering setbacks in elections in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, where her party appeared to be losing its hold on the state Parliament. With another election coming May 13 in North Rhine-Westphalia, Merkel is not viewed as having much room domestically to compromise on the critical issues of inflation and debt limits.
“How Hollande handles Merkel could make or break his prospects for the next five years,’’ said Francois Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.
“He has favorable circumstances, but she has domestic politics, too,’’ he said, and she is seen as likely to agree only to symbolic changes in the fiscal pact - not renegotiating it so much as adding clauses about growth to it.
Hollande, 57, began his career as an aide to Mitterrand and a spokesman for Lionel Jospin, the former prime minister. He first won a seat in Parliament in 1988 in rural Correze. He lost the seat in 1993, but won it back in 1997 and became president of the regional council while running the Socialist Party from 1997 to 2008.
Hollande, who may take over as president as early as May 14, will have little time to relax. He must travel to the United States for a meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized countries on May 18-19 and then a NATO summit in Chicago on May 20-21, where he intends to make good on his promise to pull French combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of this year, and where US and NATO officials will try to get him to change his mind.
Hollande’s victory will also have important implications for the right in France, with Sarkozy’s party already split between the prime minister, Francois Fillon, and the Sarkozy-like party leader, Jean-Francois Cope. The strong showing of Marine Le Pen of the National Front, who got nearly 18 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election, is a serious threat to Sarkozy’s party. It now must decide whether to make a deal with Le Pen for assembly seats in the second round of the legislative election; if not, the Union for a Popular Movement could lose up to 100 seats, political experts say.
Hollande campaigned on change and a more traditional presidency, where he would set the main course of policy but not micromanage day-to-day affairs, as Sarkozy did.
For the French, “it is a leap of faith that shows there is a strong will for a different policy course, not just at the national but at the EU level as well,’’ said Paul Vallet, a professor of history and political science at the Paris-based Institut d’Etudes Politiques.
The indebted countries of Europe are also hoping that Hollande can be a champion buying them more time to adjust.