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Sarkozy: Tough in campaign, gracious in defeat

By Peter Wilkinson, CNN
updated 5:41 PM EDT, Sun May 6, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • French President Nicolas Sarkozy concedes defeat in re-election bid
  • Most of his economic reforms, such as raising retirement age were poorly received
  • Sarkozy was praised for sure-footed handling of Toulouse shootings
  • Analysts say Sarkozy received boost as shootings diverted attention from financial crisis

(CNN) -- Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday conceded defeat in his bid for re-election as French president, accepting the blame for the result.

"I carry the entire responsibility for this defeat, and I'm going to say why. I fought for the values of responsibility, and I'm not a man who does not accept his responsibilities," Sarkozy said from his Paris campaign headquarters, as members of the crowd shouted, "No!"

"I'm ready to become a French person amongst French people, and more than ever I have the love for my country deeply ingrained in my heart," Sarkozy said.

Before the election, as opinion polls suggested his rival Francois Hollande would win easily, Sarkozy's camp had been pinning their hopes on the pollsters being wrong. But they were not.

Analysts had warned that the large share of the vote in the first round for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who took 18% of the vote, could mean problems for Sarkozy. Le Pen said she had cast a blank ballot in the second round, and observers expected many of her supporters to follow suit.

"The two remaining candidates are political Siamese twins, so I'm not expecting very much from the result," she said after voting in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont, according to Agence-France Presse.

Sarkozy has fought to keep his job amid a wave of discontent over his inability to rein in unemployment. He defended his economic record despite low growth and unemployment at about 10%, saying the impact of Europe's debt crisis could have been far worse.

France is a key player in plans to lead the eurozone out of its debt crisis, making the election vital to the region.

Sarkozy's defeat marks the latest -- and most significant -- of at least half a dozen European leaders swept from office during the eurozone economic crisis, including the Greek and Italian prime ministers.

Earlier Sunday, longtime Sarkozy supporter David Harari said he stood by the president, even as opinion polls appeared to tip in Hollande's favor.

"I believe the cards were stacked against him, but I want to believe still that he may have a chance to win, because his campaign was reasonable. ... I don't understand why people do not see the reasonableness of his program, even though it's unpopular," he said.

Concerns over the economy, unemployment and immigration have been at the forefront of the French election. In his final address Friday, Sarkozy, of the center-right UMP party, picked up on the debate over immigration as he appealed for the nation's support.

"I've always said that France needs to remain an open and profoundly humanistic country, but there is a reality that is that we have welcomed more people in France than we can manage," he said.

"I'm not speaking to the right, the left or the center, this is a presidential election. I am president of France. I must speak to the French, no matter who they are."

He and Hollande traded insults last week in the only televised head-to-head debate of the campaign. Sarkozy labeled his rival a liar and a "little slanderer," while Hollande accused the president of shirking his responsibilities, cronyism and favoring the privileged over France's poor.

The son of a Hungarian immigrant, who did not go to one of France's elite schools, Sarkozy had to fight his way to the top of politics by sheer strength of will. The smartest kid in the class, as some describe him, he was not always the most popular though.

Mocked for his lavish lifestyle, and a private life that saw him divorce his second wife immediately after his election in 2007 and go on to marry singer Carla Bruni, the French never truly warmed to Sarkozy. He is often known as "quel q'un qui derange," someone who drives you crazy.

The reason for their mixed feelings about "Sarko" was his apparent desire to ruffle feathers and challenge the established order, with his policies to end the 35-hour week, raise the retirement age beyond 60 and eliminate 160,000 civil service jobs.

None of these reforms was universally popular and some, at least initially, were roundly condemned. But Sarkozy believed them necessary and hoped his countrymen would come round to his way of thinking.

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However, as the eurozone crisis swirled, the president received a jolt in January when Standard & Poor's credit ratings agency downgraded France from the maximum Triple A status. Hollande launched a scathing attack on the government's policies, saying: "We are no longer in the first division."

Then came the killings in March of seven people, including three young children, by an Islamic extremist in Toulouse and Montauban. Election campaigning was suspended by most candidates, but as incumbent president, Sarkozy was praised for his handling of the crisis.

The president received a short-term boost as the massacre diverted attention away from the financial crisis, but the economy and job security were always going to be of most concern to voters.

CNN's Jim Bittermann contributed to this report.

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