Skip to main content

Personality, not economics, lost Sarkozy the presidency

By Agnes Poirier, special for CNN
May 8, 2012 -- Updated 0931 GMT (1731 HKT)
French President Nicolas Sarkozy awaits the Ivorian president on May 7, in Paris, one day after his election defeat.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy awaits the Ivorian president on May 7, in Paris, one day after his election defeat.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Francois Hollande appeared as Mr. Normal from first few minutes of his election, says Agnes Poirier
  • She says French didn't oust Sarkozy over financial crisis; they ousted Sarkozy on his personality
  • Hollande faces big challenge: firstly in parliamentary elections in a month when he seeks majority
  • He doesn't need to be convinced that Germany is France's most important ally, Poirier says

Editor's note: Agnes Poirier is a French journalist and political analyst who contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and TV in the UK, France and Italy. Follow her on Twitter @AgnesCPoirier

Paris (CNN) -- Two hours before the official results of the French presidential elections, no Paris visitor could ignore that a historical political change was about to happen. Down Paris' Left Bank boulevards, throngs of flag-waving young and not-so-young people were flocking towards the Socialist headquarters near the National Assembly. Cyclists were ringing their bells, cars blowing their horns and François Hollande's sympathizers chanting "Victoire!" Nicolas Sarkozy had just canceled a planned celebration at Concorde and the place, where the guillotine once stood, was alarmingly quiet and deserted.

However, as is traditional in presidential elections, France waited for the traditional countdown at 8 p.m. sharp to see the face of their next president and to start celebrating or commiserating. With 51.7% of the votes, the Socialist candidate François Hollande won a neat victory, albeit not a large one. His first few hours as president struck a different tone to Sarkozy's victory in 2007. He addressed the nation from Corrèze, his regional bastion in the heart of France,and his speech was then followed by accordionists playing "La Vie en Rose." He then hopped in a modest-looking car to reach the nearest airport and fly to Paris to go straight to the Bastille where 100,000 people waited until after midnight to hear him speak again. No flashy restaurant on the Champs Elysées, no celebrities behind him, no cortege of expensive cars: Hollande appeared as Mr. Normal from the first few minutes of his election.

Agnes Poirier
Agnes Poirier

Here lies perhaps the key to his election. Unlike the rest of Europe, where governments collapsed under the euro crisis's burden, the French didn't sanction Sarkozy for his management of the financial crisis, which in fact many consider good. They ousted Sarkozy on his personality. In the last five years, they had grown to detest the man even more than his policies. The TV debate which traditionally puts the two candidates against each other just before the second round of the elections and which was followed by 18 million people showed the two men's strikingly different styles. Sarkozy appeared as the never-ending attacker who always tried to push his rival into mistakes. Hollande looked a much calmer presence who excelled both in ducking blows and holding his ground.

If the street celebrations lasted till dawn in the streets of France, however, the honeymoon shouldn't last very long for Hollande, who was already on the phone to German chancellor Angela Merkel an hour after being elected. His task is immense. First, he must reassure the markets while pushing for a growth pact alongside the already negotiated fiscal pact. He may not even wait for the traditional week before the official handover to start his presidency. His agenda for the next few days and weeks looks extremely busy. On May 17, Hollande must meet President Obama in Washington. The two men have never met and Hollande is an unknown entity in the U.S. The following two days, on May 18 and 19, Hollande will attend the G8 at Camp David and then on to the NATO summit in Chicago, where the French president will announce the earlier withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan, an announcement which should not please the U.S. administration and Nato allies.

In France, the next hurdle will come in a month when the newly elected president will ask the French to give him a clear majority at the National Assembly. A large majority would give the Socialist government room for maneuvering and real legitimacy when dealing with other European partners.

The challenges that Hollande will face
The future of austerity in Europe

At the Bastille yesterday, Hollande stated very clearly his intent to spear a new anti-austerity movement in Europe and the world at large. The challenge is momentous. He must first convince Merkel to let the ECB play a bigger part in the euro's recovery. Will Hollande succeed where Sarkozy failed? It is possible, after all. Merkel and Hollande may belong to two different political families; this detail alone never derailed the formidable entente between Mitterrand and Kohl. Besides, Hollande doesn't need being convinced that Germany is France's most important ally. In 2007, Sarkozy very openly snubbed Merkel, by looking instead towards the U.S. and Britain. Only circumstances made him reconsider. Merkozy was never a natural duo.

At home, Hollande will start by making a few symbolic gestures: lower the retirement age from 62 to 60 for a fraction of the workforce, specifically those who started working in their mid-teens; he will raise students' scholarships; and stop the haemorrhage of teachers in the education sector, in his eyes, the most important battleground in France and the key to its future. These decisions are not going to deepen the public deficit much; they will however go a long way to signify that Sarkozysm is now extinct. And it is precisely what a majority of French people want to hear at present.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Agnes Poirier.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
May 17, 2012 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
The relationship between France and Germany is the barometer of the political health of Europe.
May 17, 2012 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
New French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici said Thursday his country would not ratify a European pact on budget discipline if it does not include measures to boost growth.
May 15, 2012 -- Updated 1204 GMT (2004 HKT)
François Hollande, the president-elect of France, may be as notable for what he has not done as for what he has.
May 15, 2012 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
French president-elect François Hollande must be careful to stimulate the economy without deepening the deficit says Justin Vaïsse.
May 7, 2012 -- Updated 0919 GMT (1719 HKT)
CNN's Jim Bittermann reports on the challenges Francois Hollande will face now that he has won the French presidency.
May 8, 2012 -- Updated 0931 GMT (1731 HKT)
France ousted Nicolas Sarkozy not for his policies, but his personality, writes commentator Agnes Poirier.
May 8, 2012 -- Updated 0003 GMT (0803 HKT)
Will the U.S. economy hit turbulence after voters in France and Greece delivered a resounding anti-austerity message?
May 6, 2012 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Nearly three-fourths of the country turns out to vote, and socialist Francois Hollande wins France's runoff election.
May 6, 2012 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Nicolas Sarkozy conceded defeat in his bid for re-election as French president, accepting the blame for the result.
May 7, 2012 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Germany's Angela Merkel has made it clear Francois Hollande cannot scrap the fiscal pact. How will Europe's two dominant nations get on?
May 7, 2012 -- Updated 0908 GMT (1708 HKT)
A woman casts her vote for Greece's general elections in Athens on May 6, 2012.
CNN's Ali Velshi takes a look at the elections in Greece and France and their lessons for the United States.
April 30, 2012 -- Updated 1313 GMT (2113 HKT)
Jay-Z and Kanye West's recent hit "N---as in Paris" may seem like an odd choice for a campaign song for a politician trying to appeal to minorities.
May 9, 2012 -- Updated 0207 GMT (1007 HKT)
Residents of Paris relay their messages to the French presidential candidates.
ADVERTISEMENT