PARIS (Reuters) -France looked ahead to an era of economic and political reform on Monday after the clear victory of conservative Nicolas Sarkozy showed voters were tired of the stagnation that marked Jacques Chirac’s presidency.
Sarkozy received 53.06 percent of the presidential vote against 46.94 for Socialist Segolene Royal, winning a mandate for his vision of a hardworking France despite leftist accusations he would prove a divisive and dangerous leader.
Sporadic violence flared in a number of French cities after his emphatic victory was flashed on television screens, but a conciliatory Sarkozy immediately reached out to his beaten foes, promising to be president of the entire nation.
Sarkozy’s campaign chief of staff Claude Gueant said the president-elect would take a few days off to recharge his batteries and put together his governing team before starting his five-year term on May 16.
“We have to act, the French people expect it. They have given him a real mandate — it’s not just an authorization to implement his programme,” he told RTL radio.
Gueant said that campaign director Francois Fillon, favorite to be named prime minister, was “among the very few who could be given that task.”
French media said voters had sent a clear pro-reform message on Sunday. “A large majority to reform the country profoundly,” read the headline in the business daily Les Echos. “The brilliant victory,” the conservative Le Figaro announced.
The left-wing daily Liberation summed up the losing camp’s mood: “It’s tough, but that’s the people’s will. A Thatcher without petticoats? Get ready for it.”
Turnout was almost 84 percent, the highest since 1988, giving his victory a strong legitimacy and extending the right’s 12-year grip on power after Chirac’s two successive terms.
The son of a Hungarian immigrant, the president-elect has made clear he wants to be a more pro-active and radical leader than Chirac, promising to loosen rigid labor laws, trim fat from the public service, cut taxes and wage war on unemployment.
“The French people … have chosen to break with the ideas and habits of the past. I will thus rehabilitate work, authority, morality, respect, merit,” said Sarkozy, a former interior minister with a hardline reputation.
At the same time, the winner reached out in his first comments after the election to “those who have been worn down by life” and promised to be “the president of all the French.”
Sarkozy is promising a deluge of reforms in his first 100 days, including plans to undermine the 35-hour work week by cutting taxes on overtime, curbing union powers and tightening sentencing for repeat offenders.
Union leaders have denounced his proposals and France could face crippling strikes in the autumn of the sort that tripped Chirac when he took office in 1995 and tried to impose change.
A new poll late on Sunday showed Sarkozy’s UMP party ahead of the Socialists, with 34 percent to their 29 percent, for the parliamentary election in June that will decide the shape of the next National Assembly.
“By putting Nicolas Sarkozy in the Elysee Palace, the French have made a powerful and conscious choice for France to change profoundly,” the business daily La Tribune wrote. “The voters were fully aware of the policies, the intentions and the personalities of the candidates.”
The defeated Socialists face a period of infighting after their third presidential defeat in a row. Royal, who suffered from campaign gaffes and a vague platform, told supporters she would continue her drive to link the party to centrists.
But her rivals have drawn their knives. Former finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn called her result a serious defeat and said he would be ready to reform the party.