After a bruising, and occasionally nasty, election campaign, France’s future and ousted presidents stood solemnly, and movingly, side- by-side today at a ceremony to commemorate the end of World War Two in Europe.
President Nicolas Sarkozy graciously invited his conqueror, François Hollande, to help him to place a wreath beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The Socialist winner of Sunday’s election stepped aside and allowed Mr Sarkozy to relight, symbolically, the permanent flame which burns on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier .
The ceremony to mark VE Day – or Victory in Europe on 8 May 1945 – is likely to be Mr Sarkozy’s last public action as president before Mr Hollande takes office next Tuesday. Mr Hollande said afterwards that it was “helpful for the country to know that it can come together ... around the president still in power, and the newly elected one, for a single cause: the country.”
Both men briefly shook hands with members of the public. A large crowd on the Champs-Elysées contained many members of Mr Sarkozy’s Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) who had been urged by party officials to give their hero a rousing send-off. They did so but they also booed Mr Hollande – crassly missing the point of Mr Sarkozy’s democratic gesture.
Mr Hollande faces a whirlwind introduction to power, including three summits – G8, Nato and an emergency European Union meeting called today – in his first eight days in office. His most urgent task will be to establish a working relationship with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in a meeting in Berlin next Wednesday, amid signs of a renewed escalation in the continent’s debt crisis.
He must also try to dispel some of the confusion surrounding his proposals to kick-start growth in Europe and move way from “austerity as something inevitable”. Officials close to Mr Hollande have been angered that parts of the international media have squashed together the French and Greek election results as a single vote “to roll back or slow down…spending cuts and tax increases”.
The Hollande camp points out that, in terms of domestic budgetary policy, the programme of the President-elect is almost as restrictive as that of Mr Sarkozy. Mr Hollande promises to balance the French state budget by 2017, instead of 2016.
In Berlin, he will try to persuade Ms Merkel that the “all-austerity” approach is self-defeating. While maintaining fiscal discipline at domestic level, EU governments should agree a multi-billion Euro programme of rail, road and environmental projects to pump new growth into the European economy.
Mr Hollande wants these projects to be funded partly by existing EU funds and partly by “euro-bonds” issued by the European Investment Bank. Ms Merkel has so far refused to countenance such an idea. In an interview with the web-site Slate.fr, conducted last week but published today, Mr Hollande said: “Our German friends can’t have a double-lock, both on euro-bonds and the direct financing of public debt by the ECB.”