After a bitter campaign and a close presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande appeared together at a WWII commemoration in Paris on Tuesday. But the divisions within an increasingly polarised France may not be so easy to reconcile.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and president-elect François Hollande appeared side by side in Paris on Tuesday for the first time since the pre-election debate on May 2 to commemorate the end of the Second World War.
After a bitter election that culminated with the victory of the Socialist Hollande over the conservative Sarkozy, many in France looked to the event as a first opportunity to mend a divided nation.
Hollande, who will be sworn in as France’s new president on May 15, and Sarkozy laid a wreath together at the flame of the unknown soldier under the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Elysées avenue in central Paris.
May 8 is a national holiday in France, with schools and banks closed for the day. The commemoration ceremony was broadcast live on French public television.
"That we can celebrate May 8 -- the sitting president, Nicolas Sarkozy, alongside the president just voted in by the French people -- I think it's a beautiful image that reflects what I think should be my objective the day after election day: reconciliation,” Hollande said on Monday.
The Elysée Presidential Palace had earlier announced that Hollande had accepted Sarkozy’s invitation to participate in the annual commemoration.
Tuesday’s collegial atmosphere stood in stark contrast to the last meeting between the two men. In a May 2 televised debate at the height of the campaign, Sarkozy and Hollande shook accusatory fingers at each other, with Sarkozy calling the left-wing a liar and Hollande ripping apart the incumbent’s record in office.
The bitter debate was on par with the overall mood of the campaigns, in which French voters became increasingly polarized towards the political extremes. May 1 saw thousands of people hit the streets of Paris for competing rallies between the left-leaning unions, Sarkozy supporters, and members of France’s far-right.
The May 6 presidential election was the second closest in French history, with Hollande edging out Sarkozy 51.62% to 48.38%.
Conscious of the growing divide, the candidates began offering reconciliatory remarks as soon as election results appeared on Sunday evening. In his first victory speech in the central town of Tulle, Hollande recognized that millions of people had not voted for him and said he would also work for them.
“We are not a France divided, we are one single France, all united in the same destiny,” Hollande told his supporters.
Fighting to speak over an indignant crowd at his campaign headquarters in Paris, Sarkozy urged supporters to respect Hollande as president, even while adding a few last jabs at critics.
“Let’s not give a bad example. I have greatly suffered because of the disrespect that was shown to my office. We will never be like those who fought against us. We love our country,” Sarkozy said.
Nevertheless, some were sceptical that the country was ready to let the healing begin. France’s political left was hoping to deal a double blow to Sarkozy’s right-wing UMP party by winning back a majority in parliament in legislative elections next month.
In an opinion pieced titled “The party is over” in the right-leaning daily Le Figaro, editor Pierre Rousselin said Europe’s debt woes and Germany’s unbending stance on austerity measures would be a rude wake-up call to Socialist candidates who think they can storm into parliament.
The ruling UMP party has also laboured to show that it is still in fighting form despite Sarkozy's loss in the presidential poll. Its top brass gathered in Paris on Monday for an extraordinary meeting at the party’s headquarters.
“We were punished because of the [financial] crisis and anti-sarkoism. It is very unjust. Hollande is legitimate, but he is not wanted,” shot Guillaume Peltier, a young UMP member and a MP candidate in the upcoming poll, after that meeting.
On a day when France is set to reconcile, the looming parliamentary poll is a guarantee that politicians, as well as the French electorate, are headed towards a new fight.
Date created : 2012-05-08