Sarkozy picked as president

Polarizing figure, ex-Chirac protege wins 53 percent of French vote

May 07, 2007|By Tom Hundley | Tom Hundley,Chicago Tribune

PARIS -- Nicolas Sarkozy, son of a Hungarian refugee and former protege of President Jacques Chirac, won yesterday's French presidential election, easily defeating Socialist Party candidate Segolene Royal in a contest that will likely be remembered as a watershed in the nation's political history.

Sarkozy took 53 percent of the vote, according to exit polls and partial results; Royal, the first woman to make it to the final round of a presidential race, finished with 47 percent. The voter turnout was projected to be close to 85 percent.

Sarkozy will succeed his one-time mentor, Chirac, who led the country for 12 years but who did not seek a third term. These days, Chirac and Sarkozy are barely on speaking terms.

Charismatic, combative and with an admiration for the U.S. that is unusual for a French politician, Sarkozy is a polarizing figure in France, so much so that thousands of riot police were deployed in the outlying areas of Paris where young men of African and Arab origin went on a rampage for three weeks in 2005, and where Sarkozy is still reviled for labeling the rioters "scum."

As tens of thousands of ecstatic Sarkozy supporters poured into the Place de la Concorde to celebrate their candidate's victory yesterday evening, several thousand opponents gathered about a mile away in the Place de la Bastille and the Place de la Republique, where they threw stones and bottles at police who fought back with tear gas and truncheons.

Four vehicles, including a bus, were set ablaze in Argenteuil, the immigrant district where Sarkozy made his "scum" remark. There also were reports of scattered violence in Lyon, Nantes, Toulouse and Rennes.

"The people have voted for change," a surprisingly subdued Sarkozy told his supporters moments after the results were announced. "I will implement this change and I will do it together with all French people in the spirit of unity and fraternity."

At 52, Sarkozy will be the youngest French president since Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who was 48 when he was elected in 1974. He also is the first to have been born after World War II, signaling a generational change in French politics.

Early in his run for the presidency, he promised a "rupture" with the policies of the past that brought economic stagnation and a widespread feeling among the French that their country was in a state of decline. He has called for more flexibility in the 35-hour workweek, arguing that those willing to work harder should be allowed to earn more. He also signaled a willingness to take on France's powerful trade unions.

Many of Sarkozy's foes consider him to be a dangerous authoritarian figure, easy to anger and with a long memory for perceived slights. During the campaign, he was accused of pandering to anti-immigrant fears in a bid to lure voters away from perennial far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen.

For Royal, yesterday's vote marked a frustrating end to a campaign that began with great promise but was plagued throughout by discord, defections and a deepening sense that the Socialists had nothing new to offer.

Tom Hundley writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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