New French leader wins immediate victory on EU growth

France's new president-elect won a quick early victory Sunday when other European leaders fell in behind his plan to build a new common growth strategy as soon as his rival's defeat was confirmed.

When Socialist flag-bearer Francois Hollande began his campaign there was concern in some capitals that his call for the eurozone fiscal pact and its austerity measures to be renegotiated would threaten financial stability.

Germany in particular was opposed to any measure that would undermine the bloc's commitment to deficit cutting, and Chancellor Angela Merkel backed France's President Nicolas Sarkozy in his failed re-election bid.

But as it became clear that Hollande had won, other European capitals echoed his call for a "growth pact" to kickstart stagnant economies and fight joblessness, and the debate shifted his way.

Hollande's camp had said his first call would be to Merkel, and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle sought to allay fears that a change of power in Paris would disrupt close Franco-German economic cooperation.

"We will work together on a growth pact," he told reporters in Berlin. "I have no doubt that we will rise to our common challenges... I am confident the Franco-German friendship will be further deepened."

In his victory speech in the rural Correze town of Tulle, Hollande returned to the theme of European growth.

"Europe is watching us," Hollande told supporters. "I am sure that when the result was announced, in many European countries there was relief, hope and the notion that finally austerity can no longer be the only option.

"And this is the mission that is now mine -- to give the European project a dimension of growth, employment, prosperity, in short, a future," he said.

"This is what I will say as soon as possible to our European partners and first of all to Germany, in the name of the friendship that links us and in the name of our shared responsibility.

"We are not just any country on the planet, just any nation in the world, we are France," he boasted.

In Brussels, Hollande's growth agenda also won the tacit support of the EU executive.

"I know I can count on the convictions and personal commitment of Francois Hollande to push European integration forward," European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said in a statement.

"We clearly have a common objective: relaunching the European economy to generate durable growth," he said. "We must now transform these aspirations into concrete actions."

The only EU leader to come to France during the campaign to support Hollande, Belgium's Socialist Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, was warm in his congratulations and signed on to the growth agenda.

Among the few other Socialists in power in Europe, Di Rupo said he too wants "budget discipline at the European level to go hand-in-hand with an ambitious growth strategy for the benefit of all Europeans".

And Germany's opposition leader Sigmar Gabriel from the Social Democrats and Martin Schulz, Socialist leader of the European Parliament, also congratulated Hollande on his "impressive" election campaign.

"With you at the helm, France will contribute decisively to creating a strong impetus towards creating growth and jobs in Europe, alongside the necessary measures to consolidate national budgets," they wrote.

There also appeared to be little danger that the long-expected Socialist victory in France would trigger panic on the bond markets, which France and other EU powers rely upon to finance their deficit spending.

Analysts said the situation in Greece, where an election saw anti-austerity parties win 58 percent of the vote, was of more concern than the change of leadership in Paris.


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