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Regime change in France signals wider shift in European outlook

Supporters of France's newly-elected president Francois Hollande celebrate during a victory rally at Place de la Bastille in Paris on May 6, 2012.

CHARLES PLATIAU/Charles Platiau/Reuters

Europe's wall of conservative blue saw its first crimson fractures Sunday night as elections delivered a historic regime change to France, showed a newly resurgent left in Greece and Germany, and signalled the end of a continent-wide consensus around debt-cutting and austerity as the main response to the economic crisis.

Europe's political centre of balance shifted decisively with the election of Socialist Party leader François Hollande to the French presidency, who defeated conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, 51.6 per cent to 48.4.

His presidency marks more than just the end of 17 years of right-wing French leadership.

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The new politics could shift relationships with the United States and Canada, with Mr. Hollande promising to push Europe's focus away from trans-Atlantic military and trade relationships toward a more insular emphasis on co-operation through the European Union. The withdrawal from Afghanistan is likely to become even more rapid, and the Canada-European Union free-trade agreement, championed by Mr. Sarkozy, could move to the back burner.

Mr. Hollande's victory also may signal an end to an awkward compromise among the leaders of Germany, France and other European states around debt-cutting, rather than growth promotion, as the solution to the euro-zone crisis.

"Europe is watching us," Mr. Hollande declared in a victory speech. "In many European countries there is now relief. … Austerity is no longer the only option."

As if to drive home that shift, Greeks delivered a crushing blow Sunday night to the coalition of pro-austerity conservative and centre-left parties, with the strongest returns going to far-left parties.

The shifting tide could also be felt in Germany, when a symbolically important election in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein delivered a humiliating blow to the conservative-liberal coalition government of Chancellor Angela Merkel at the hands of parties of the centre-left. It could mean that Ms. Merkel will be forced by her opposition parties to co-operate with Mr. Hollande's demand for a growth-promoting bailout pact – and that European politics will feel very different after Monday morning.

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SIX EUROPEAN COUNTRIES HELD ELECTIONS SUNDAY. HERE IS A QUICK LOOK AT WHAT'S AT STAKE:

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FRANCE: Socialist challenger François Hollande defeats incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy for the presidency by capitalizing on anger over austerity measures. As president, Mr. Hollande is expected to push for a more stimulus-minded approach to the financial crisis in France and the rest of Europe.

GREECE: Greeks punish the two main parties in parliamentary elections, with official projections showing both hemorrhaging support and no party gaining enough votes to form a government. The results could affect the country's course as it grapples with a debt crisis that has shaken world markets.

SERBIA: The nation of 7.1 million people in southeast Europe holds presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections. The outcomes could affect Serbia's relations with the European Union as well as Kosovo, a one-time province whose declaration of independence Serbia has refused to accept.

GERMANY: Exit polls show voters in Germany's northernmost state have likely ousted a governing centre-right government made up of the same parties as the federal coalition, a blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel. About 2.24 million people are eligible to vote in Schleswig-Holstein state.

ITALY: It's the nation's first election since Premier Mario Monti was tapped to save Italy from its debt crisis. The vote could gauge public anger against parties supporting his austerity measures. Some 9.5 million Italians were eligible to vote Sunday and Monday for 942 city councils and mayorships.

ARMENIA: Some 2.5 million Armenians are eligible to vote for a new parliament in an election the nation's president hopes will give him a legislative majority. President Serge Sarkisian's Republican Party is expected to win, but it wants the majority in the 131-seat parliament to avoid having to form a coalition.

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Associated Press

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ALMOST EVERY CRISIS-HIT EUROPEAN COUNTRY THAT HAS HELD AN ELECTION SINCE DISASTER STRUCK IN 2009 HAS THROWN OUT ITS LEADER

SPAIN: A burst real estate bubble also deflates faith in a Socialist government, which is nonetheless reluctant to admit Spain has problems. The Socialists of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero are wiped off the map in November 2011 elections; Mariano Rajoy's conservatives take over.

ITALY: Silvio Berlusconi, the long-serving leader accused of everything from bedding escorts to serial corruption, finally bites the dust in November 2011. Mario Monti, a former European Commissioner, is named to replace him and lead a technical government until elections in 2013.

BRITAIN: Gordon Brown leads the Labour Party to defeat in the May 2010 election; Conservative Party leader David Cameron becomes leader of a coalition government. Mr. Brown had boasted endlessly of ending the cycle of boom and bust – but as prime minister he presided mostly over bust.

IRELAND: Brian Cowen, promoted to prime minister in 2008 after being finance minister, doesn't even get to run. He resigns as leader of the Fianna Fail Party weeks before the February, 2011 election. It doesn't help his party, which suffers its worst ever defeat.

GREECE: Greek Socialist leader George Papandreou swept to power in October 2009 over conservative opponents, pledging to spend his way out of a deteriorating economic situation. Two years later, at the height of Greece's worst financial crisis since World War II, Papandreou's his own deputies force him out.

PORTUGAL: A month after Portugal requests a €78 billion-euro bailout, the centre-left Socialist government of Jose Socrates is voted out of power in June, 2011.

DENMARK: A centre-right government in Denmark loses power in September in part due to discontent over austerity measures introduced amid the debt crisis. It is replaced by a centre-left coalition.

FINLAND: Finland's government is reconfigured after June elections following a sharp surge in support for nationalists who oppose bailouts for debt-stricken euro-zone countries. A conservative-led coalition spanning left and right is formed to keep the nationalist True Finns out of power.

But in some countries, voters bucked the trend:

ROMANIA: Romanian President Traian Basescu wins re-election in 2009, the year Romania's economy shrinks by 7 per cent and Romania takes a €20 billion-euro bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Union. Mr. Basescu, a former ship captain, prevails because he is seen as a strong leader in a time of crisis.

POLAND: It's the only European Union country that did not to slip into recession during the global crisis of 2008-2009. Last fall the centre-right party of Prime Minister Donald Tusk wins a second straight term in parliamentary elections, making history by becoming the first government since the fall of communism in Poland in 1989 to be re-elected.

ALSO: Sweden's prime minister is re-elected in 2010 and the prime ministers of Latvia and Estonia are re-elected in 2011.

Associated Press

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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