French president-elect Francois Hollande waves to crowds gathered to celebrate his election victory in Bastille Square in Paris, France, Sunday, May 6, 2012. Hollande defeated outgoing President Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday to become France’s next president, Sarkozy conceded defeat minutes after the polls closed. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani) (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)
PARIS (AP) — France handed the presidency Sunday to leftist Francois Hollande, a champion of government stimulus programs who says the state should protect the downtrodden — a victory that could deal a death blow to the drive for austerity that has been the hallmark of Europe in recent years.
Mild and affable, the president-elect inherits a country deep in debt and divided over how to integrate immigrants while preserving its national identity. Markets will closely watch his initial moves as president.
He narrowly defeated the hard-driving, attention-getting Nicolas Sarkozy, an America-friendly leader who led the country through its worst economic troubles since World War II but whose policies and personality proved too bitter for many voters to swallow.
“Austerity can no longer be inevitable!” Hollande declared in his victory speech after a surprising campaign that saw him transform from an unremarkable figure to an increasingly statesmanlike one. He will take office no later than May 16.
Speaking to exuberant crowds, Hollande portrayed himself as a vehicle for change across Europe.
“In all the capitals … there are people who, thanks to us, are hoping, are looking to us, and want to finish with austerity,” he told supporters early Monday at Paris’ Place de la Bastille. “You are a movement lifting up everywhere in Europe, and perhaps the world.”
Celebrations continued into the night on the iconic plaza of the French Revolution, with revelers waving French, European and labor union flags and climbing the base of its central column. Leftists were overjoyed to have one of their own in power for the first time since Socialist Francois Mitterrand was president from 1981 to 1995.
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