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France elects U.S. ally Sarkozy

Times Staff Writer

Nicolas Sarkozy, an immigrant’s son promising to revitalize France, won a comfortable victory Sunday in a presidential election seen as a mandate for his bold plans to enact free-market reforms, reassert influence abroad and strengthen ties to the United States.

Center-right candidate Sarkozy won 53% of the vote to beat Socialist Segolene Royal, who aspired to be France’s first female president, according to official results based on 95% of the vote. Turnout for the runoff election was about 85%, 2 percentage points shy of the record.

“The French people have expressed themselves,” Sarkozy told a boisterous crowd in a theater near the Avenue des Champs Elysees. “They have chosen to break with the ideas, the habits and the behaviors of the past. I want to rehabilitate work, authority, morality, respect, merit. I want to restore the honor of the nation and the national identity. I want to return to the French the pride of being French.”

The election was a historic moment for a country anxious about economic stagnation, political malaise and ethnic tension. The solid win showed that voters believe Sarkozy has the strength and vision to push through challenging reforms such as streamlining government, encouraging entrepreneurship and cutting taxes, analysts said.

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“This is the first time that the right incarnates change more than the left,” said Thierry Vedel, an analyst at the Center for the Study of French Political Life here. “It is remarkable. Sarkozy’s margin is very good, especially if you consider that the turnout was so high.”

Sarkozy’s vocal admiration for the United States distinguishes him from a political class with an anti-American streak. During his victory speech, Sarkozy drew cheers when he spoke warmly of the U.S. -- and when he vowed that France would preserve its independence.

“I want to send word to our American friends to tell them they can count on our friendship, which has been forged by the tragedies of history that we have confronted together,” Sarkozy said. “I want to tell them that France will always be at their side when they need her. But I also want to tell them that friendship is accepting that friends can think differently, and that a great nation like the United States should not be an obstacle to the fight against global warming, but on the contrary should take the lead because the future of all humanity is at stake.”

President Bush, who had a strained relationship with incumbent Jacques Chirac, called Sarkozy soon after the result was announced and congratulated him, officials said. In addition to transatlantic issues, Sarkozy wants to restore France as a driving force in a European Union beset with division and dysfunction.

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Sarkozy, 52, represents a new generation of leaders taking the helm after three decades of politics dominated by two men: Chirac, 74, and his predecessor, Socialist Francois Mitterrand.

The compact, workaholic Sarkozy was the front-runner from the start. His relentless campaign gained strength from his experience as interior and economic minister, his crisp and streetwise oratory, and his detailed proposals. Last month, he won the first electoral round with 31% among a dozen candidates, 5 percentage points ahead of Royal and 13 points ahead of the next contender.

Appealing to centrists

During the two-week runoff campaign, Sarkozy stuck to a disciplined strategy of toning down his combative image and appealing to centrists. In contrast, the previously smooth and reassuring Royal gambled by changing style, attacking him loudly in a televised debate last week and warning of urban unrest if he was elected.

Although Sarkozy served in Chirac’s Cabinet and led the ruling Union for a Popular Movement party, he portrayed himself as a force for change. His free-market, law-and-order message was more unabashedly conservative than Chirac’s. He also gained credibility with voters because of his longtime feud with the unpopular Chirac, who tried doggedly to block Sarkozy’s run by hinting that he might run for reelection and by promoting other contenders.

Sarkozy’s win changes the face of the presidency and could bring new diversity to the elite as well. He is the son and grandson of Hungarian and Greek-Jewish immigrants. As interior minister and as a candidate, he took on the thorny issue of integrating the mostly immigrant and Muslim population, proposing affirmative action and a “Marshall Plan” to create jobs for those who reside in bleak public housing projects that have been the scene of prolonged riots.

Sarkozy reached out to his opponents Sunday night, promising to unite the nation. He is expected to name a government that will prominently feature minorities, women and members of other parties when he takes office May 16, Vedel said.

“He likes to surprise, and I think he will take very strong, very symbolic actions to demonstrate change,” Vedel said.

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In recent years, however, Sarkozy’s tough talk on immigration and security stirred conflict with gangs and left-wing activists, raising fears that his presidency could bring new unrest.

On Sunday, the government deployed massive police contingents to quell disturbances. There were scattered clashes across France, but most involved leftist extremists in central cities rather than more dangerous street gangs in industrial suburbs, police said. The worst unrest took place in Toulouse: About 1,200 activists charged the City Hall and burned French flags, and two police officers were slightly injured in skirmishes with about 50 rioters in a housing project outside town.

In Paris, riot police with water cannons dispersed about 1,000 protesters in the Place de la Bastille on Sunday evening. In the city’s outlying slums, the most violent in the nation, police reported flare-ups of vandalism and car fires, but a police spokesman said the toll was not much worse than an average Sunday night. He said statistics on arrests and damage had not yet been compiled. Agence France-Presse estimated early this morning that dozens of cars had been burned in the Paris region.

30,000 supporters gather

But there were no troubles in the heart of the capital where about 30,000 Sarkozy supporters sang and celebrated at a rally on the stately Place de la Concorde. Alexandre Jumelin, a professional stunt cyclist, and his girlfriend Elodie Cannone, a schoolteacher, showed up with their 3-year-old son in a stroller.

“We voted for him because we had the impression that he is the only one who can do what he said and he has broad enough shoulders to do it,” Cannone said. “I find him very pleasant despite what has been said about him. I think he’s very cool, full of humor and personality, very educated and cultured. He’s a great speaker. He’s young and dynamic and he reminds me of my father.”

Meanwhile, the glum crowd at Socialist headquarters on the Left Bank looked back on a campaign hobbled by internal divisions. Royal, 53, was a surprise candidate who bested old guard leaders in a party primary. Her loss is likely to set off a new duel for leadership, and her concession speech sounded like the first round.

“I have engaged in a profound renewal of political life, its methods and of the left,” Royal told her supporters. “You can count on me to continue a profound overhaul of the left and the quest for new alliances beyond its current frontiers.”

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Those words alluded to another result of the election: the rise of Francois Bayrou, a centrist candidate who gained 18% of the vote in the first round and formed a new party. Royal tried to enlist Bayrou’s backing for the runoff, but he refused to endorse either candidate. In the June legislative elections, Bayrou could lose his parliamentary group because most of his two dozen legislators, and many of his voters, defected to Sarkozy, whose party is likely to win a legislative majority.

At Socialist headquarters Sunday night, admirers worried that Royal could fall victim to an all-out battle for the uncertain future of a party that has lost the last three presidential elections.

“After this,” complained Bounoua Redine, a 23-year-old student, “the party is going to push her aside and there will just be this memory left of somebody who tried to modernize the party.”

Times staff writer Achrene Sicakyuz and special correspondents Geraldine Baum and Devorah Lauter contributed to this report.


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