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Moment that mattered: The French election night

President-elect Francois Hollande delivers his speech after his election in Tulle, central France, Sunday, May 6, 2012. Francois Hollande defeated Sarkozy on Sunday to become France's next president, Sarkozy conceded defeat minutes after the polls closed. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)



“Crowds began to gather at the Bastille, the home of the French left in Paris, from early evening. At about 6.30pm, word spread that the early exit polls were going Hollande’s way, and a party atmosphere started to brew. This put us, the television journalists, in a difficult position. French law prohibits the publication or broadcast of any exit polls before the last polling stations close at 8pm, and the authority responsible had threatened to impose the maximum €75,000 fine on anyone who breached the regulations.

This gave us about an hour-and-a-half of slightly absurd television. Live cameras showed audiences around the world that excitement was building at Bastille – and that a stage and giant screen were being swiftly erected. Meanwhile at Place de la Concorde, rallying point for Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party, there was no sign of a rig, or a crowd. Broadcasters weren’t allowed to break the news that most viewers had already guessed.

At 8pm the assembled crowds were formally told that France had elected a socialist president for the first time since 1988. The response from the thousands in the square was suitably ecstatic. I saw several loyal supporters in tears, and the chants changed from ‘on va gagner’ (we are going to win) to ‘on a gagné’ (we have won).

The people I spoke to that night all wanted to talk about Nicolas Sarkozy. This election was a referendum not only on his decisions as president, but his style of carrying out his duties. He earned the nickname ‘President Bling-Bling’ early in his term for his hyperactive approach to power, and his whirlwind romance with and marriage to Carla Bruni only confirmed this image in voters’ minds.

People had different hopes for François Hollande, the self-styled ‘Mr Normal’. I met teachers, students and other public sector workers at the Bastille that night. They were all hoping for better employment prospects from President Hollande, after years of austerity under Sarkozy.

As the night went on, the mix of flags waving in the crowd changed too. It became a coalition of the left, with greens, communists, the far-left Front de Gauche, and even a Greek flag flying over the cheering masses. The message was clear: the right had been vanquished.

By the time Hollande arrived at the Bastille from his constituency base of Tulle in the Corrèze region it was 1am. The square was heaving, and the ground was littered with beer cans and empty champagne bottles. The roar when the new president took to the stage was deafening. Perhaps the elation had gone to Hollande’s head, as he went straight to greet his former partner, Segolène Royal, with a kiss on the cheek. Their relationship ended after she lost her presidential bid in 2007. Unfortunately, the cameras caught the face of Hollande’s current girlfriend, political journalist Valérie Trierweiler, as he approached Royal. As he returned to her side, she’s said to have hissed, ‘Kiss me on the mouth.’ He obliged.

Crossing Place de la Bastille a few months later, the hopeful feeling of that night hasn’t entirely dissipated. Hollande has managed some small victories in Europe, but significant job loss announcements have taken some of the gloss off his government. Just weeks before carmaker Peugeot Citroën announced in July that it was cutting 8,000 posts, unions had warned there were up to 90,000 jobs under threat in the industrial sector. On top of that, France’s growth forecast has been slashed, and it only narrowly avoided re-entering recession in the second quarter of the year.

In his victory speech at the Bastille, Hollande said his victory would allow people around Europe to look at France and to hope for an alternative to austerity. The French are still waiting for that alternative.”

Stephen Carroll is a freelance reporter based in Paris, who was working for Sky News during the presidential election. You can follow him on Twitter @newstephen.

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