François Hollande, the French president elect, joined Nicolas Sarkozy at Paris’s armistice commemorations in an unprecedented show of unity between political rivals after the vitriolic election campaign.
Inspecting troops and laying wreaths at the Arc de Triomphe, the defeated right-wing president Sarkozy looked downbeat and gloomy as he led his final state ceremony before quitting office next Tuesday. Hollande will then become the first Socialist president since François Mitterrand.
The two men stood silently side by side at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before laying a wreath together and greeting veterans. Less than a week earlier they faced off in the most aggressive presidential TV debate France had ever seen, with Sarkozy calling Hollande a “little slanderer”. On TV Sarkozy had complained that left-wing critics had compared him to a number of European fascists, and “why not Hitler?” with Hollande shooting back: “You’d be hard-pressed to pass yourself off as a victim.”
The image of the rivals now shaking hands and standing together under a giant French tricolour was unprecedented. Only once before had an outgoing and incoming president taken part in an armistice commemoration together, but when the ageing, outgoing Mitterrand invited Jacques Chirac to join him in 1995, they had not run against each other in that campaign.
The invitation had been Sarkozy’s initiative, offered in a phone-call to Hollande shortly after the election result as he crossed Paris by presidential car to give his speech conceding defeat. Hollande, who has said he wants a “calm” hand-over and to reconcile a France that is left bitterly divided by Sarkozy, accepted.
But the jovial Socialist, who Sarkozy had attacked during the debate as “Mr Little Jokes”, didn’t spare Sarkozy his one-liners during the tired-looking president’s efforts at small-talk at the Arc de Triomphe. As the two men shook hands with government figures, Sarkozy gestured to the Socialist head of the senate, Jean-Pierre Bel and began, “We have a child …” before a grinning Hollande injected: “Together?” A deadly serious Sarkozy took a deep breath before expanding that he and Bel had daughters with the same name.
Following the ceremony, Hollande told journalists the joint appearance was symbolic, and after a “particularly” tough campaign, “it was useful and helpful for the country to know it can still come together … around the president still in power, and the newly elected one, for the same one cause: the country”.
Sarkozy’s prime minister Francois Fillon, called it an image of “eternal France”. The former Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin called it a gesture that was “psychologically” important for France.
Sarkozy then wandered off to greet adoring crowds standing behind barriers on the Champs Elysees waving tricolour flags and chanting “Nicolas! Nicolas!” Jean-Francois Copé, head of Sarkozy’s ruling right-wing UMP party had sent a text message to party members asking them to turn out in big numbers to give Sarkozy a “warm welcome”. It was likely to be Sarkozy’s last public walkabout as president.
Hollande and Sarkozy will next meet at the Elysee on May 15 for the traditional protocol-laden handover of power, during which they will have a private meeting where Sarkozy hands over the codes to France’s nuclear deterrent. The following day, Hollande will hold his first cabinet meeting before flying straight to Berlin to meet Angela Merkel for the first time and begin efforts to convince her to accept a renegotiation of the European budget discipline treaty to include measures on growth. Pierre Moscovici, Hollande’s campaign director and a former Europe minister said he believed a “compromise” would be achieved.R Soft Web Hosting