PARIS (AP) — Francois Hollande walked up the steps of the Elysee Palace in Paris and walked out Tuesday as France's first Socialist president since 1995, taking the helm of a country worried about Europe's future and pledging to make it a fairer place.
The 57-year-old rode to the presidency on a wave of resurgent leftist sentiment amid Europe's debt woes and protests against capitalism around the world.
After ceremony steeped in tradition, Hollande displayed his populist touch with a rain-soaked ride up the Champs-Elysees avenue, standing tall in his vehicle's sunroof to wave to crowds lining the streets before getting out for handshakes with adoring crowds.
Hollande then left within hours on his first diplomatic foray — to Berlin, following a postwar custom for new French leaders to reach out to their German counterparts to solidify European unity. He also named a moderate member of his Socialist party, Jean-Marc Ayrault, as his prime minster.
Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are in different camps, however, when it comes to solving Europe's debt crisis. While new figures Tuesday showed the 17-nation eurozone has avoided a new recession, thanks largely to Germany, new political turmoil in Greece was reviving fears about the fate of their shared euro currency.
Hollande is only the second Socialist president of modern France, after Francois Mitterrand's 1981-1995 tenure. He was elected to run this nuclear-armed nation earlier this month after voters ousted incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy after only one term. Voters were disappointed over Sarkozy's handling of France's economy — which has high unemployment and low growth — and recoiled at his aggressive personality.
Arriving Tuesday morning at the 18th-century Elysee Palace, the traditional residence of French presidents, Hollande was greeted by Sarkozy on the red-carpeted steps. The two held a 40-minute private meeting that is traditionally the moment when the outgoing president hands over the codes to France's nuclear arsenal.
Hollande was declared president after the head of the constitutional court read out the final results of the May 6 election.
The new president immediately acknowledged the challenges he inherits: "a massive debt, weak growth, high unemployment, degraded competitiveness, and a Europe that is struggling to come out of crisis."
In his speech, Hollande promised to fight financial speculation and "open a new path" in Europe. He has pushed back against a European budget-cutting pact championed by Merkel and Sarkozy.
"To overcome the crisis that is hitting it, Europe needs plans. It needs solidarity. It needs growth. To our partners, I will propose a new pact that will tie the necessary reduction of public debt with the indispensable stimulus of the economy," he said.
Hollande also pledged to bring "dignity and simplicity" to the presidential role — something voters felt that Sarkozy did not always do.
With the economy in the doldrums and joblessness high, the French mood is glum and many voters are looking to the inauguration as a rare moment of national pride, and to Hollande's presidency as a new opportunity to make things better.
Earlier Tuesday, the state statistics agency released new figures showing that the French economy had failed to grow in the first quarter. Some economists predict a contraction ahead, which would complicate Hollande's promises to rein in the deficit.
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