PARIS — Francois Hollande became the president of France today in a ceremony steeped in tradition, taking over a country worried about Europe’s future and pledging to make it a fairer place.
After a rain-soaked ride up the Champs-Elysees avenue and handshakes with adoring crowds, Hollande leaves later today on his first diplomatic foray — to Berlin. It’s a postwar custom for new French leaders to reach out to their German counterparts to solidify European unity.
Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are in different camps, however, when it comes to solving Europe’s debt crisis. They meet amid relief at new figures showing the eurozone has avoided a new recession, thanks largely to Germany, but also amid new political turmoil in Greece that revived fears about the fate of the shared currency.
Hollande, 57, is only the second Socialist president of modern France, after Francois Mitterrand’s 1981-1995 tenure, and rode to the presidency on a wave of resurgent leftist sentiment amid Europe’s troubles and anti-free-market protests around the world.
He was elected to run this nuclear-armed nation earlier this month after voters ousted incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy after only one term. Voters were disappointed over Sarkozy’s handling of France’s economy — which has high unemployment and low growth — and recoiled at his aggressive personality.
Arriving Tuesday morning at the 18th-century Elysee Palace that is the traditional residence of French presidents, Hollande was greeted by Sarkozy on the red-carpeted steps. The two held a 40-minute private meeting that is traditionally the moment when the outgoing president hands over the codes to France’s nuclear arsenal.
Hollande was declared president after the head of the constitutional court read out the final results of the May 6 election.
The new president immediately acknowledged the challenges he inherits: “a massive debt, weak growth, high unemployment, degraded competitiveness, and a Europe that is struggling to come out of crisis.”
In a speech, Hollande promised to fight financial speculation and “open a new path” in Europe. He has pushed back against a European budget-cutting pact championed by Merkel and Sarkozy.
“To overcome the crisis that is hitting it, Europe needs plans. It needs solidarity. It needs growth. To our partners, I will propose a new pact that will tie the necessary reduction of public debt with the indispensable stimulus of the economy,” he said.
Hollande also pledged to bring “dignity and simplicity” to the presidential role — something voters felt that Sarkozy did not always do.
With the economy in the doldrums and joblessness high, the French mood is glum and many voters are looking to the inauguration as a rare moment of national pride, and to Hollande’s presidency as a new opportunity to make things better.
Three hours before he took office, the state statistics agency released new figures showing the French economy failed to grow in the first quarter. Some economists predict a contraction ahead, which would complicate Hollande’s promises to rein in the deficit.
World markets and other European leaders will be watching closely to see whether and how Hollande follows through on his campaign promises, such as pulling French troops out of Afghanistan, freezing gasoline prices and hiking taxes on the rich. Observers expect that once he settles into the presidency, he’s likely to fall back into the moderate consensus-building that has characterized his career.
After the Berlin visit, Hollande heads later this week to the United States to meet President Barack Obama and attend summits of the Group of Eight and NATO.
A key sign will come when he names his prime minister, expected later Tuesday.
Hollande received the insignia of the Grand Croix from the hands of Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin, who heads the prestigious Legion of Honor, and the necklace of the Great Master of the Order of the Legion of Honor. Each linked medallion of the necklace bears the name of a president, with Hollande’s name recently added.
Sarkozy left the palace hand-in-hand with wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, had a last handshake on the palace steps with Hollande, then was driven away. Former staff members gathered in the palace courtyard applauded loudly as Sarkozy left, and fans gathered at the Elysee gates waving signs reading “Nicolas, merci!”
Guests at Tuesday’s ceremony included France’s leftist political elite, 10 French Nobel Prize winners, France’s chief rabbi, the head of an umbrella group of French Muslim organizations and a host of cultural figures.
Hollande shook hands with many of the hundreds present at the ceremony, then reviewed troops in the palace gardens. Following tradition, 21 shots were fired from cannons at the Invalides, a domed complex on the opposite side of the Seine River that holds Napoleon’s tomb.
Rain started pouring down on the famed Champs-Elysees avenue as Hollande rode up its center, standing in the sunroof of his hybrid Citroen DS5, trailed by dozens of Republican Guardsmen on horseback and motorcycle. His suit was visibly drenched within moments. He then headed for the Arc de Triomphe, and its monument to the unknown soldier.
Hollande, sticking to his campaign promises of being a more “normal” president, broke with protocol during a day full of symbol-rich events, walking over to the barricades to shake hands — and even kiss — adoring onlookers.
His second presidential speech of the day focused on education, as he pledged to create 60,000 new teaching jobs in the aftermath of cuts Sarkozy had made.
Hollande, who has never been married, was joined for the Elysee ceremonies and in his motorcade car Tuesday by his poised girlfriend, journalist Valerie Trierweiler.
Hollande’s former partner and mother of his four children, Segolene Royal, joined him later Tuesday in a ceremony at Paris City Hall. Royal, a prominent Socialist politician, was runner-up to Sarkozy in the 2007 election and she is angling for a top job under Hollande’s presidency.
Hollande’s first presidential meal reflected relative modesty, at least by French culinary standards: lobster and citrus terrine, cote de boeuf, and strawberry macaron cookies for dessert.
Sarkozy’s inauguration five years ago broke with some of the tradition that the French associate with the Elysee Palace, and offered up a first lady in Prada and romantic intrigue instead. Sarkozy and his then-wife Cecilia — both already on their second marriages, and on the verge of divorce — posed on the red carpet with their blended family of five kids.
Sarkozy’s hands-on presidency brought change to the once-stuffy Elysee — but that, and Sarkozy’s image as a man too friendly with the rich while recession hit, ultimately turned many voters against him.
Sarkozy has said he will quit politics now.