PARIS - Nicolas Sarkozy, son of a Hungarian refugee and former protege of President Jacques Chirac, won Sunday’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 Sunday 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 Sunday evening, several thousand of his 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 infamous scum remark. There also were reports of scattered violence in Lyon, Nantes, Toulouse and Rennes.
But in the Place de la Concorde, the celebration was building a head of steam that seemed likely to last until the early hours.
“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.”
The immigrant’s son - his aristocratic father fled the communist regime in Hungary - spoke of his profound love for a France “which has given me everything” and said “the time has now come to give everything back.”
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 major 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 somehow 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.
“An American neo-conservative with a French passport” is how Sarkozy was described by Eric Besson, who at the time was Royal’s chief economic adviser. Besson later had a falling-out with the Royal camp and declared his support for Sarkozy.
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. Sarkozy’s campaign posters were frequently defaced with Hitler mustaches.
But according to the xenophobic Le Pen, Sarkozy was not sufficiently “French” to be a worthy president of France.
For Royal, Sunday’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.
Still, Royal, serene in defeat, tried to claim a moral victory. “Something has been awakened that won’t stop. What we have started we will continue together,” she told her followers in a brief concession speech.
After a surprisingly easy victory in her party’s primary, Royal seemed well-positioned to make history as France’s first female president. Her soothing style was in sharp contrast to Sarkozy’s abrasiveness.
She promised to overhaul the Socialist Party and move it away from some of its more hidebound ideologies. But a succession of gaffes revealed a thin grasp of foreign policy issues, and even within her party, there seemed to be doubts about her competence.
Sarkozy already has announced an ambitious plan for his first 100 days in office. He hopes to put a package of reforms before a special session of the National Assembly in July, including a proposal that would eliminate taxes on overtime, and another that would make it easier for companies to hire and fire new employees.
In his victory speech, Sarkozy promised warmer relations with the United States.
“America can count on our friendship and, as throughout history, we will always be at her side whenever we are needed,” he said, but added that “friendship means accepting that friends can have different opinions.”
President Bush phoned the president-elect to offer congratulations.
Sarkozy has been wearing his presidential ambitions on his sleeve for years. A television reporter once asked him whether he thought about the presidential palace when he shaved in the morning. “Not just when I shave,” he replied.
During the campaign, he made an effort to soften his hard edges, frequently telling his supporters that his previous political persona had changed.
Now that the French electorate has given him the victory he has long sought, Sarkozy said he would go on a private retreat for a few days to prepare for the immense job that lies ahead.