Two minutes after the polling stations closed, we knew the winner.

France has a unique tradition of announcing the president-elect. At 8 p.m., as the TV cameras roll, the winner's face is slowly unfurled on a silver screen in hues of red, white and blue (the national colors). The two contenders in the run-off for France's highest office that took place on May 6, 2012 were the Socialist François Hollande, and the center-right incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).

"Sarko," as he is popularly known, has a thick head of hair; Hollande, although exactly the same age (57), has a balding pate. As soon as the top of the head appeared on the screen, the people's choice was instantly recognizable: in a record voter turnout (80%), the Socialist candidate, Hollande, had beaten his rival.

And another victory quickly followed a month later when the Socialists and their allies also won an absolute majority of seats in the legislative elections.

The Socialists now control almost every lever of political power—the presidency, Senate, National Assembly, and most of France's 22 regions and departments as well as its major cities. They do so, moreover, at a time when France's major European partners and friendly rivals—Great Britain and Germany—are still governed by conservatives.

On the evening of May 6, a massive, euphoric crowd assembled in Paris at the historic Place de la Bastille to celebrate Hollande's election. Ever since the toppling of the Bastille prison over two hundred years ago, the event that helped to spark the world-changing French Revolution, France's leftists have gathered in this square to celebrate their victories.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the nation's famed revolutionary tradition, these victories have been surprisingly few and far between.

Indeed, Hollande is only the second Socialist to be elected president since 1958, when Charles de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic. The first was François Mitterrand, who swept into the Elysée in 1981 in the wake of the oil crisis of 1979, and amid rising unemployment—and who was then re-elected in 1988.

Conservatives in France and abroad predictably met Hollande's election with consternation, to put it mildly. Socialism, at least in the United States, has become a byword among Republicans for fiscally irresponsible government over-reach into the lives of citizens, epitomized by "Obamacare."

In the eyes of the right-wing press in Europe, France under Hollande can only be headed for "revolution"—i.e. mob rule, attacks on the rich, and an even more bloated social welfare system—policies that the Left has ostensibly always stood for. And this at a time, these same conservatives insist, when France in particular, and Europe in general, require austerity, fiscal responsibility, and a dramatic slashing of public expenditures to compete effectively in today's globalized economy.

Ever since the elections, pundits have been trying to explain Hollande's victory and to understand what exactly this surge in support for the Socialist Party (PS) means for France and Europe. And while the answers vary, almost everyone agrees on two points.

First, while Hollande ran a brilliant campaign, he won the election in part on the basis of his promise to preserve the essence of France's social programs and to govern France "humanely." He even presented himself as "Mr. Normal."

And second, he was immensely aided by the enormous wave of antipathy that many French men and women on both sides of the political divide felt for the policies and the "bling" lifestyle of incumbent president Sarkozy.

In this sense, any analysis of the Hollande victory and socialist surge must take into account the long history of both social welfare and socialism in France—and the broad-based support in France for the welfare state—as well as the ways in which "Sarko" shot himself in the proverbial foot during his five years in office.

"Dream on": Hollande as Improbable President

The Right's initial reaction to Hollande's election is reinforced by the fact that the man himself was a virtual unknown abroad. Even in France he was long considered a colorless party hack, rather than a serious contender for the presidency.

Until the cataclysmic political demise of fellow socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn (or DSK, as he is always called by the media), who was arrested in New York City in May 2011 and accused of sexually assaulting the Sofitel chambermaid Nafissatou Diallo, no one imagined that François Hollande could emerge as the party's candidate. DSK, a successful lawyer, economist, and politician, seemed to have all the advantages: ministerial experience, the requisite socialist credentials, and a successful term as managing director of the IMF.

Hollande nevertheless managed to win the October primary and became, with Nicolas Sarkozy, one of ten contenders in the first round of presidential elections, held in April 2012. Since no one won an absolute majority, a run-off between those with the most votes, Hollande and Sarkozy, took place three weeks later. This time the Socialist candidate garnered 51.7% of the popular vote to win the Presidency.

It was a stunning outcome for a man with no previous experience in a national government position. Throughout the 1980s, Hollande remained a junior adviser to Mitterrand. He was then elected to parliament and regional office in the Corrèze area of southwestern France—a political stronghold he shared with former center-right President Jacques Chirac (1995-2007)—and served the region loyally.

His highest-profile role to date has been as leader of France's Socialist Party from 1997-2008. Overall, he had a reputation for, if not blandness, at least unpretentiousness and a fondness for telling jokes. A year ago Laurent Fabius, a former prime minister (and the current Minister of Foreign Affairs in Hollande's government) went on record saying "François Hollande president? Dream on."

Obviously, Hollande proved the doubters wrong.

But beneath his low-key demeanor, Hollande is, like so many of France's governing class since the end of World War II, a product of the country's elite schools. He was born in the Norman city of Rouen; his father was a doctor on the extreme-right and his mother was a progressive social worker. His family moved to Paris in 1968, when he was 13, the same year the student revolts broke out.

After receiving his baccalaureate, he studied at Paris' prestigious Institut des Sciences Politiques and France's leading business school, l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC). Hollande then entered the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA), which was created in 1945 with the specific purpose of training the post-war generation of leaders.

There he met the future mother of his four children, Ségolène Royal, with whom he shared a 30-year relationship ending shortly after Royal ran as the Socialist candidate in the 2007 presidential election and lost to Nicolas Sarkozy. (Hollande is now partnered with French TV journalist Valérie Trierweiler.) After meeting at the ENA, Royal and Hollande together became party stalwarts.

Appearances to the contrary, Hollande is an extremely well prepared, well connected, and experienced insider among France's power elite.

All of these qualities were on display in the election campaign. But, the longer history of France's post-war social compact and government commitment to social justice also explains the recent socialist success.

The Post-War Social Consensus and the History of French Socialism

It may come as news to many readers, that almost everyone in France—not only Socialists—holds the welfare state sacrosanct.

As American historian Philip Nord put it, "the [French] state's job is to educate, to provide welfare services, and to make cultural goods available to one and all. On these basic points, most French can still agree, and they do not want to go down the Anglo-American road with its dog-eat-dog capitalism and consumer kitsch. Individualism and liberalism, words that some Anglo-Americans hold dear, do not have the same positive ring in French ears."

Why should there be such agreement over the need to preserve the welfare state in a country famously divided on just about everything else?

Here history provides a relatively simple answer. France's current cradle-to-grave safety net dates back to 1945, when policy-makers at the end of World War II drawn from both the Left and the Right, many of whom had served in the Resistance, created the system. Determined to put the humiliation of defeat, occupation, and collaboration behind them, Socialists, Communists, centrists, and conservatives alike insisted that the nation needed not only social justice but repopulation, if France were to be great again.

These twin goals of justice and repopulation proved to be mutually reinforcing ones, and led to a truly comprehensive social security system that remains the envy of most visitors—and the pride of most French citizens. It incorporated health, disability, old age, death benefits, workplace compensation and the most generous family allowances in Europe. To again quote Nord, "The postwar order in France has proved more durable than in the United States or Great Britain, and that is because it was more consensual."

This consensus on social policy was not always the case in France. Before World War II the struggle for social benefits was largely unsuccessful except in the realm of child welfare. Because late nineteenth-century elites in France were already worried about the nation's declining birthrate, they began providing generous state subsidies, maternity leave, and free infant healthcare to poor mothers.

In every other respect, however, they were committed to the free market and refused to pass many social measures beyond the provision of universal free primary education.

A fledgling socialist movement did its best to agitate for social protection for workers, but it was too small and fractious to influence legislation. French socialists a century ago could often not even agree on which political strategy to follow: should they work within the system and try to win reforms that would only "disguise" the evils of capitalism, or should they stay out of electoral politics and work towards revolution?

Only in the wake of the Depression and the rise of the fascist threat in the 1930s did France's divided leftists finally put aside their differences and form a "popular front"—a coalition of communists, socialists and moderate republicans—to defend democracy against fascism, reduce inequalities, and bring greater social justice to France's poorest citizens.

For the first time in the history of modern French politics, a Socialist, Léon Blum, became prime minister in 1936. The Popular Front introduced the forty-hour work week, the right to collective bargaining, pay raises, and the first paid vacations for French workers, among many other initiatives.

French conservatives were outraged, and as the Depression lingered on and the threat of war grew, the Popular Front collapsed, along with most of its reforms.

Yet because so many Socialists and Communists subsequently joined the Resistance to the Nazis, they were in a position in 1945 to bring back and expand the welfare provisions that they had first tried to implement in 1936.

Mitterrand and the Evolution of Postwar French Socialism

While the welfare state became a permanent fixture of postwar French life, the Socialists would only return to power twice, in 1956-57, and then again with the election of François Mitterrand in 1981. Mitterrand's legacy as president for an unprecedented fourteen years is key to understanding the kind of Socialist president that Hollande aspires to be.

Back in 1981, Mitterrand ran on a modernizing platform to "change life" (changer la vie) "here and now" (ici et maintenant). Hollande, in clear emulation of Mitterrand, chose as his slogan "Change, now" (le changement, c'est maintenant).

In the Mitterrand era, the country was just emerging from twenty years of conservative rule, marked in particular by Charles de Gaulle's authoritarian paternalism. For twenty years Mitterrand had opposed many of the institutions and socio-economic policies of the Fifth Republic. (Although both ends of the political spectrum shared the firm commitment to social policies and the welfare state, they often took different approaches when it came to implementation). Now, he was its president.

During his fourteen years in office Mitterrand did bring change, just not the kind everyone expected from a Socialist president. France was on the cusp of a painful transition to a post-industrial society. The number of workers in manufacturing had peaked in 1975, which meant that many had recently lost, or were in the process of losing their jobs—and with them a whole way of life.

Like other advanced economies, although no one could see the future at the time, France was shifting from a primary economy, with wealth generated by producing heavy industrial products, coal steel, and automobiles, to a secondary economy centered on services, finance, and high technology.

Mitterrand's promise to change life in 1981 spoke particularly to France's industrial workers, who represented 25% of the electorate, and who traditionally voted for the Communist Party (with whom the Socialists were allied). Once elected, Mitterrand paid this blue-collar constituency back by promptly appointing four communist ministers, a controversial move at the time.