Socialist Party (PS) newly elected president Francois Hollande waves after the results of the second round of the presidential election on May 6, 2012 in Tulle, southwestern France. Francois Hollande was elected France's first Socialist president in nearly two decades today, dealing a humiliating defeat to incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and shaking up European politics. Image Credit: AFP

Francois Hollande has won the second round of the French presidential election on Sunday — the most important ballot in France's political system. This marks the first time a Socialist candidate has won the presidency since 1988, when Francois Mitterrand scored a triumphant second mandate.

Some compare Hollande's victory with Mitterrand's first election, that of 1981 when — for the first time since 1958 and the beginning of the Fifth Republic — a Socialist was elected president. In 1981, Mitterrand won in alliance with the Communist Party, which was very strong at the time (with around 15 per cent of the votes). Hopes for a total change of the system (changer la vie) were high, and the idea of a real ‘break' with capitalism was hugely popular. The 2012 Socialist candidate's programme has been far less radical, more moderate, more friendly to the markets.

At the same time, like many other leaders in Europe, Hollande faces growing popular rejection of the austerity that the European Union, especially Germany, wants to impose. The result of the elections in Greece, where the far left won 30 per cent of the votes, is just one of the many signs of this rejection. In France too, after a long decline, the far-left candidate in the first round of the election Jean-Luc Melenchon — with his Front de Gauche alliance of breakaway Socialists, the Communist Party and other small left-wing parties — won around 11 per cent of the votes. And a good part of Hollande's voters are convinced he must change the country's economic policy: it was one of the main reasons for President Nicolas Sarkozy's defeat.

Politics of austerity

How will Hollande deal with this situation? Luckily for him, a number of European leaders and economists are beginning to think that the politics of austerity are no longer workable and growth is necessary if the countries of Europe are to pay back their debts (as we have seen very clearly in Spain and Greece). Even the US is worried by the EU's austerity policies.

But such changes are not easy. Hollande faces a dilemma. Either he must agree to change France's economic policies and the way the country has implemented ‘liberalisation' — and especially the central role of the markets — since the 1980s (with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher), which means taking on the markets (and their wealthy backers). Or he must comply with these policies — with more austerity, more unemployment and mounting popular opposition, which will come not just from the far left, but also from the far right. The fact that only half of Marine Le Pen's supporters voted for Sarkozy (and fewer still in the poorer suburbs) is a clear sign of this. Any failure by Hollande to tackle social problems could, in the mid-term, spell a new rise of the far-right, and increasing hostility to immigrants and Islam.

The far-right has brought these questions to the forefront of the political debate. Part of the French population now believes that immigrants are responsible for the current crisis and sees Islam as a threat to its western lifestyle. If the next government is unable to deal with this economic and social crisis, immigrants will clearly become scapegoats. We are not living in the 1930s, but we should not forget that worrying precedent.

Hollande faces other challenges. The first is to win the legislative election for the National Assembly in June, otherwise he will be paralysed by a rightwing government. It is of note that Sarkozy has decided not to play a leading role in these elections: this will open an internal fight within his party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), which is divided not just between wings (one more moderate, the other more rightwing), but also between different leading figures.

Hollande will also have to face international challenges, especially at the G-20 and the Nato summit in Chicago this month. We cannot expect many foreign policy changes. Perhaps Hollande will be a little less "Atlanticist" — he is in favour of withdrawing French troops from Afghanistan before the end of the year — and less pro-Israel than Sarkozy (who won more than 90 per cent of the French, mostly binational, votes in Israel). But on Iran or Syria, it doesn't seem that his policy will be any different from Sarkozy's. Relations with Turkey should improve, since Hollande is less hostile to the Turks than Sarkozy.

Hollande is becoming president in a world that is rapidly changing, in which the weight of France (and Europe) is diminishing as newer powers continue to rise, from Brazil to China. Will France be able to adapt to this new configuration? That is the main challenge for France's new Socialist president.


Alain Gresh is deputy director of Le Monde diplomatique, Paris.