Conservative wins French presidency, mandate for reform
PARIS -- Nicolas Sarkozy, a blunt and uncompromising pro-American conservative, was elected president of France on Sunday with a mandate to chart a new course for an economically sluggish nation struggling to incorporate immigrants and their children.
Sarkozy defeated Socialist Segolene Royal by 53.06 percent to 46.94 percent with 84 percent turnout, according to final results released early today. It was a decisive victory for Sarkozy's vision of freer markets and toughness on crime and immigration, over Royal's gentler plan for preserving cherished welfare protections, including a 35-hour work week that Sarkozy called "absurd."
"The people of France have chosen change," Sarkozy told cheering supporters in a victory speech that sketched out a stronger global role for France and renewed partnership with the United States.
There were few reports of unrest, despite fears that the impoverished suburban housing projects, home to Arab and African immigrants and their French-born children, would erupt again at the victory of a man who labeled those responsible for rioting in 2005 as "scum." That abrasive style raised doubts over whether Sarkozy, himself the son of a Hungarian refugee, could truly unite the increasingly diverse and polarized nation.
Sarkozy pledged in his victory speech to be president "of all the French, without exception."
But that task will not be easy. The 52-year-old former interior minister inherits a nation losing faith in itself, paralyzed by worries over globalization, bitter at American dominance and saddled with social tensions.
Late Sunday, small bands of youths hurled stones and other objects at police at the Place de la Bastille in Paris, who fired volleys of tear gas. Two police unions said firebombs targeted schools and recreation centers in several towns in the Essonne region just south of Paris.
For all his determination and talk of change, Sarkozy also is certain to face resistance from powerful unions to his plans to make the French work more and make it easier for companies to hire and fire.
"Like Thatcher in Britain, like Reagan in the United States, Sarkozy will change things," said supporter Thierry Gauvert, 55.
The White House said President Bush had called to congratulate Sarkozy, who is largely untested in foreign policy but reached out to the United States in his victory speech.
Royal's program seemed more in line with the policies pursued under the outgoing Chirac -- who is from Sarkozy's own party, the Union for a Popular Movement. Chirac, 74, held the presidency for 12 years but failed repeatedly to push through reforms.
The handover of power ushers in a president from a new generation, who has no memory of World War II and waged the country's first high-octane Internet campaign.
Royal, an unmarried mother of four, would have been France's first female president. Her defeat could throw her party into disarray, with splits between those who say it must remain firm to its leftist traditions and others who want a shift to the political center like socialist parties elsewhere in Europe.