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.