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France Dreams of Equality Again

PARIS, May 7 2012 (IPS) - With Nicolas Sarkozy’s swerve to the far-right ending in failure, French Socialist voters say they are looking forward to a more egalitarian and unified France.

Hollande supporters say "Get Lost", as Sarkozy once did. Credit: A.D.McKenzie/IPS.

Hollande supporters say "Get Lost", as Sarkozy once did. Credit: A.D.McKenzie/IPS.

The conservative incumbent was defeated in the second and final round of presidential elections Sunday by his Socialist challenger François Hollande, who won 52 percent of the vote.

Hollande’s victory came after a divisive campaign that saw immigrants and “radical Islam” targeted by both Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party who came third in the first round of voting on Apr. 22.

“France is not far-right and Sarkozy made a big mistake in trying to appeal to National Front voters,” said Elvis Alaho, a Frenchman of Congolese and Beninese origin, who said he had been an activist for the Socialist Party (PS) since 2002.

“It’s Sarkozy himself who caused his own loss by mixing everything together,” Alaho told IPS as he celebrated with other Hollande supporters near the PS headquarters in Paris. “He was not at all sincere. He was just trying to get votes.”

Political analysts said that by adopting the anti-immigrant themes of Le Pen’s campaign, Sarkozy had hoped to win a second term in office by attracting some of the 6.2 million people who voted for the National Front leader in the first round. But Le Pen herself refused to endorse him, saying she would cast a blank vote. He also lost support from centrist voters.

Alaho said Sarkozy had “divided the nation” and it was now up to Hollande to restore unity. “We’ve had immigrants on one side, and French on the other. Muslims on one side, and Christians, Jews on the other. That’s not good for the country,” he said.

Nearby, Florence Lemaitre, a Paris resident and retired fashion-industry worker, stood quietly with tears in her eyes, watching as Socialist supporters prepared to march to the Place de la Bastille (a symbol of the 1789 French Revolution) for a victory rally.

“I’m so emotional because we’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” she told IPS. “Right up to yesterday, Sarkozy tried to sell France to the National Front, a true scandal, and I think it’s because of that he lost.”

She said that although Sarkozy had left France in a “real mess”, she was confident Hollande would keep his promises and make French society fairer. “It will be hard because of the crisis, but Hollande will be up to it,” she said.

Speaking at his political base Tulle in central France after results were announced, Hollande said he would be a president for all French people. The first Socialist elected president in 17 years, he said that equality, fairness and a focus on young people would be his priorities during his term in office.

“There is only one France, reunited in the same destiny,” he said. “Everyone in the republic has equal rights and duties. No child of the republic will be left aside, abandoned, relegated, or discriminated against.”

Sarkozy, in an unexpectedly gracious and humble speech, said he assumed responsibility for his own defeat – a reference perhaps to his early abrasive and ostentatious style that did not endear him to his compatriots, and to the later misguided veer to the far-right.

Gregory Sicre, a young Paris resident of Caribbean and Italian origin, said many people of his age had voted for Hollande because the Socialist was more in tune with the times and proposed better solutions for France’s problems, including youth unemployment.

The jobless rate among young people currently stands at 25 percent, and Hollande has said he will provide training and create 150,000 jobs for youth in disadvantaged areas.

“He’s addressing one of our main concerns,” Sicre said, adding that the Right’s anti-immigrant discourse had been a big “turn-off” for many voters who were more interested in “real issues”.

Luce B., a first-year student at Sciences Po university, the alma mater of both Sarkozy and Hollande, told IPS that she and her peers had closely followed the candidates’ promises regarding youth and that these were promises “that had to be kept.”

“It’s about the future of France,” she said, asking that her surname not be used. “A lot of Sarkozy’s policies have failed young people and that’s why many moved to the far-right. We now have to see what Hollande will do, but for me it’s about our future and equality.”

Hollande has said he will increase the tax rate of the rich to have a more egalitarian society and to reduce the country’s deficit. He has pledged to impose a rate of 75 percent on annual income above one million euros, and his supporters believe he will stick to this pledge even as critics expect the rich to flee to other countries.

France, like many other countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), has seen the gap between rich and poor increase during the global financial crisis.

In a report last December titled ‘Divided We Stand’, the OECD said that the “average income of the richest 10 percent is now about nine times that of the poorest 10 percent” across the organisation’s 34 member states. In France, about 8.2 million poor earn less than 900 euros month.

“There are so many people who have studied and earned diplomas who have to be working in cafés and earning less than 1,000 euros,” said Anne, a Hollande supporter walking back home after listening to the election results with friends.

“People spend their time drinking or crying and feeling hopeless. How can you live on that kind of money in France? It’s not right. That’s why people voted for Hollande. Things have to change,” she told IPS.

But even the president-elect realises that change won’t come easy. “The challenges are numerous and hard: increasing production so our country can emerge from the crisis; reduction of our deficit;… preservation of our social model to assure the same access to public services for everyone; educational priority which is the glue in our society,” he said Sunday night.

“I ask to be judged on two major undertakings: justice and youth,” he added. “Each of my choices and decisions will be based on these criteria: is it just and is it really for (the benefit) of youth.”

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