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Sarkozy loses in France; Greek voters also turn on leaders

ATHENS _ Voters in France and Greece delivered a harsh judgment on their ruling parties in elections Sunday, ousting President Nicolas Sarkozy from power in France and severely punishing the two leading parties in Greece.

Final French results showed Socialist Francois Hollande beating Sarkozy with 52 percent of the vote, returning the Socialists to power in France for the first time in 17 years.

In Greece, where more than two dozen parties contested elections, the Socialist PASOK and its coalition partner New Democracy saw a dramatic cut in public support, and there was a chance that the breakaway Radical Left coalition, known as Syriza, Would finish first, official exit polls showed..

PASOK saw its support drop by as much as two thirds to between 14 and 17 per cent from the 44 per cent it had won in 2009 while the conservative New Democracy party could fall to between 17 and 20 per cent, down by nearly half from its 33.5 per cent in 2009.

The big gainer was Syriza, which garnered between 15.5 and 18.5 per cent of the vote, up from 4.6 per cent in 2009, and the ultra-rightist Golden Dawn party, which others have labeled as neo-Nazi, which will enter the parliament with between 6 and 8 per cent of the vote, the official exit polls showed.

Although the initial exit polls gave no details of why people voted as they did, the publics in both countries appeared to be rejecting the European Union’s austerity program that was undertaken largely on German demands to stabilize the euro following fiscal crises in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland.

Syriza has demanded a renegotiation of the EU’s bailout agreement with Greece, which has resulted in higher taxes, sharp cuts in public spending and government employment and lower wages. But the party supports Greece retaining the euro as its currency. Golden Dawn has denounced repayment of the national debt but also wants Greece to remain in the euro zone.

Still to be seen in France was whether Hollande had achieved the “ample victory” that he had sought as a mandate to renegotiate the European Union’s tight budget rules and institute a “growth pact” in order to stimulate stagnant economies.

Sarkozy’s center-right Union for a Popular Movement will probably have to be reorganized after this stinging defeat. Sarkozy criticized Hollande’s plan as a recipe for failure and has announced a few months ago that he would quit politics if he loses. The party current holds a majority in the French National Assembly, but that seems unlikely to hold with legislative elections scheduled for next month.

PASOK has largely dominated Greek politics since 1981, and its devastating fall in support, likely to be attributed to its backing of the EU’s harsh austerity measures, will upend the country’s political landscape.

New Democracy had been widely predicted as the likely winner in the elections, but its slide from strength will make it difficult to form a government. Under Greek election law, if none of the top three finishers is able to establish a ruling coalition in the 300-seat parliament, President Karolos Papoulias will have to call new elections.

McClatchy special correspondent Frederic Castel contributed from Paris.