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Austerity backlash: Sarkozy out in France, ruling parties lose in Greece

French and Greek voters delivered a sharp rebuff to their governments in national elections Sunday, raising questions about the viability of the European Union’s austerity program intended to preserve the euro as Europe’s dominant currency.

By a 52 to 48 margin, France elected Francois Hollande its first Socialist president in 17 years, replacing the right-of-center Nicolas Sarkozy, who became the first French leader to be denied a second term in 32 years.

In Greece, voters delivered a stinging judgment against the two ruling parties that had supported austerity agreements with the EU, cutting their support by nearly half and raising questions about whether they would be able to cobble together a new government. The biggest winners in Greece were the Radical Left coalition, which finished second, and the Golden Dawn party, a neo-fascist group that won parliamentary seats for the first time, with nearly 7 per cent of the votes.

How the results will affect Europe’s economic planning remained to be seen. Sarkozy was a close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose government has been the primary proponent of the tough austerity measures that Europe has undertaken over the past two years in an effort to head off a crisis triggered by massive governmental debt in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland.

Hollande has said he will press Germany to renegotiate Europe’s pact enforcing budget discipline and add a clause on growth to stimulate stagnant economies and add new jobs. He’s also promised to raise the minimum wage and lower the retirement age to 60 from 62 for some workers and to add 60,000 new teaching jobs, all policies Sarkozy had opposed.

Hollande, who was scheduled to talk to Merkel late Sunday, avoided stirring rhetoric in his victory statement, referring only indirectly to Sarkozy’s divisive leadership that cost him his popularity.

“The French have decided for change in electing me to the presidency,” he said. “I appreciate the honorI pledge to serve my country with dedication. Tonight we do not have two Frances in confrontation. There is only one France, only one nation, unified in the same destiny.”

Sarkozy, the first top French leader to be denied a second term in 31 years, took “full responsibility for the defeat” and told associates he was quitting the leadership of his Union for a Popular Movement political party, which faces National Assembly elections next month, where it currently holds a majority. Those elections will determine whether Hollande will be able to win approval for his program.

In Greece, party workers watched in stunned silence at the headquarters of the right-of-center New Democracy party as the results came in showing a fall in popular support to 20.5 per cent, from 33.5 per cent in the 2009 parliamentary elections. A senior party official told McClatchy it was “like an earthquake. ”

Even harder hit was the socialist PASOK party, which has largely dominated Greek politics since 1981 and won only 14 per cent of the vote – down almost two-thirds from the 44 per cent in 2009.

But there were hugs and kisses all around at the headquarters of the Radical Left, known as Syriza, which won some 15.6 per cent, more than three times what it had garnered in 2009, and jubilation that the party had been catapulted to first place in Athens and its surroundings, which is home to half of Greece’s 11 million population.

And from a balcony at the building housing Golden Dawn, a party which uses a stretched Swastika as its emblem, party leader Nikos Michaloliakos proclaimed victory before a crowd of about 800. “Veni, vidi, vici,” (I came, I saw, I conquered), he told the mostly black-shirted male crowd, quoting from Julius Caesar’s triumphal arrival in Rome in 47 B.C. “You slandered me, you angered me, I defeated you,” he added, referring to attacks by other parties and the Greek news media.

Under Greek election law, which awards an extra 50 seats to the party with the biggest plurality, New Democracy may be able to form a government with PASOK, to which it was junior partner in an uneasy alliance since November. But it is likely to be a weak coalition and to produce spectacular battles in parliament _ assuming it adheres to its commitments to the EU to raise taxes, fire public workers and reduce wages in exchange for some 240 billion in bailouts.

Both Antonis Samaras, leader of the New Democracy, and Evangelos Venizelos, head of Pasok, called Sunday night for a government of national unity, bringing in all parties that want to preserve the euro as Greece’s currency.

“We are ready to undertake the responsibility of creating a government of national salvation, with two goals: staying in the euro zone and altering the policies of the (bailout agreement) so that we can have development and easing the burden on society,” Samaras said. “I understand the wrath of the people, but we will not leave Greece without a government.”

In a sign of the uncertain chances for a unity government, former New Democracy member Panos Kammenos said his breakaway Independent Greeks party, which won about 10.4 per cent, was willing to form a government of national unity, but only if Syriza will join. But Syriza leader Aleksis Tsipras said his priority is to lead a government of the left that will reverse the course of the EU bailouts.

Voting in Greece is obligatory, but voters stayed home – or at the beach -- in far larger numbers than in 2009, with turnout only at 60 per cent, down 10 per cent from 2009. Voters said they had a very tough time deciding between major parties that most felt were responsible for the crisis in the first place and smaller, untried parties that were unlikely to be able to fulfill any of their promises.

“The two big parties are not reliable. That is why I voted for a smaller party that I didn’t support before,” said Katarina Zafiriadou, 35, a cosmetician, who voted for Syriza. “I don’t know if it’s good or bad. I wanted to try something different.” She said she’d previously voted for New Democracy. What annoyed her was not that Samaras supported the bailout conditions, but “that he was adamant five days before he changed his mind that he wouldn’t change his mind. “

Panayiota Zoi, 19, a psychology student at a private college in Athens, voted blind Sunday. After removing the ballot papers of the parties in the current parliament, she closed her eyes and picked one of the remaining two dozen parties running.

“I am sure she didn’t vote for the parties that (destroyed) the country,” said her boyfriend, Anastasios Patelis, who used a vulgar word instead of destroyed. Patelis, 23, also a psychology student, said he didn’t vote because he is from Corfu and would have had to pay his way home and back.

Constantinos Apostilakis, 39, a computer salesman who was with his wife and four-year-old son at the same beach, said he’d voted for a pro-business party called Drasi, headed by politician Stefanos Manos, a former minister of finance. “I don’t know if they will get three per cent, but he has very good ideas,” he said.

His wife, Fotini, 34, an accountant, said she hadn’t yet voted but would choose between Syriza and the Communists. They both agreed that Greece is unlikely to see any results anytime soon, but that their son, coincidentally named Manos, might.

“The current program is a dead end,” said Constantinos Apostilakis. “When Manos grows up, in 20 years, the country will be out of recession. The young guys who are in their 20’s now – they are going to have a serious problem.”

Special correspondent Frederic Castel contributed from Paris

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