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France goes to Hollande

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PARIS -- 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 the Second World War 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 labour 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.

Sarkozy is the latest victim of a wave of voter anger over spending cuts in Europe that has ousted governments and leaders in the past couple of years.

In France, with 95 per cent of the vote counted, official results showed Hollande with 51.6 per cent of the vote compared with Sarkozy's 48.4 per cent, the Interior Ministry said. The turnout was a strong 81 per cent.

Sarkozy conceded defeat minutes after the polls closed, saying he had called Hollande to wish him "good luck" as the country's new leader.

"I bear responsibility. ...for the defeat," he said. "I committed myself totally, fully, but I didn't succeed in convincing a majority of the French. ...I didn't succeed in making the values we share win."

Sarkozy came to office on a wave of hope for change that critics say he squandered even before the economic crises hit. They saw his tax reforms as too friendly to the rich, his divorce in office and courtship of supermodel Carla Bruni as unseemly, and his sharp tongue as unfitting for his esteemed role.

Hollande has pledged to tax the very rich at 75 per cent of their income, an idea that proved wildly popular among the majority of people who don't make nearly that much.

-- The Associated Press

Elections across Europe

SIX European countries held elections Sunday. Here is a quick look at what was at stake:

France: Socialist challenger Francois Hollande defeats incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.

Greece: Greeks punish the two main parties in parliamentary elections, with official projections showing both hemorrhaging support and no party gaining enough votes to form a government.

Serbia: Polls show pro-European Union candidate Boris Tadic and nationalist opponent Tomislav Nikolic are headed for a presidential runoff, while the ruling pro-Western party is likely to form the next coalition government. The outcomes could affect Serbia's relations with the EU as well as Kosovo.

Germany: Exit polls show voters in Germany's northernmost state have likely ousted a governing centre-right government made up of the same parties as the federal coalition, a blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Italy: It's the nation's first election since Premier Mario Monti was tapped to save Italy from its debt crisis. The vote could gauge public anger against parties supporting his austerity measures. Some 9.5 million Italians were eligible to vote Sunday and Monday.

Armenia: President Serge Sarkisian's Republican Party was expected to win, but it wants the majority in the 131-seat parliament to avoid having to form a coalition. Results were expected Monday.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 7, 2012 A9

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