Sundays in France are typically the quietest day of the week. Most stores are closed and in cities large and small, quiet afternoons with family are the norm. But May 6 was one of the most anticipated elections in more than 25 years, and everyone skipped the usual afternoon tranquility to vote and wait for results.
They came by early evening as the candidate of the right, Nicolas Sarkozy, pulled cleanly ahead of socialist candidate Ségolène Royal to win the presidency. Sarkozy's margin was over 53 percent to Royal's nearly 47 percent. More surprising was voter turnout: a record 85 percent, the highest ever in a French presidential election.
In Paris, Royal conceded minutes after definitive results were announced. "The universal suffrage has spoken," she said with her characteristically broad smile.
Minutes later, Sarkozy accepted victory: "The French people have chosen a change," he said over thundering cheers in Paris. "The only victory tonight is democracy."
French newspapers described this as the most significant election since 1981, when François Mitterand was elected president. And for the weeks between an April 22 general election with about a dozen candidates and the May 6 runoff between leading vote-getters Royal and Sarkozy, news outlets and talk shows talked of nothing else. At cafés throughout France, the conversation turned inevitably to the campaign. The final televised debate between the two candidates went for two and a half hours, without a single commercial interruption; 20 million viewers in France tuned in, a record for any political program.
"I've never seen such long lines," said Eileen Slezak, an American-born French citizen living in southern Aix-en-Provence, outside the voting bureau.
Normally the French are reluctant to speak about politics and won't say how they voted, but the buzz over this election had many eager to state their opinions: "In a lot of people's minds, the government has got to go back to firmer hands," said Slezak.
"He's been screaming into the microphone for 20 years. And only now he is able to be elected. What has changed?" said Slezak. "Not him; France. People want traditional values, like in the family and work."
"The values that command here are cash; economic needs rule," said Bertrandon Joelle, a voter for Sarkozy. "Royal isn't competent. We need financial reforms because of our massive debt."
Sarkozy campaigned on a promise to bring order to the country, to the banlieues-the troubled immigrant suburbs-and in the economy. He says he wants to remake the national workplace. Currently there is a limit of 35 hours for a work week-in theory to create more jobs. Yet unemployment stands nationwide at 8 percent, and soars to 40 percent in some banlieues. Sarkozy plans to give augmented wages to all employees who work more than 35 hours a week, and talks incessantly about elevating the value of work.
Not everyone is a believer. One voter who gave his name as V. Quiret, said, "He is a little dictator. Starting tonight, there will be protests, violence. Me, I'm afraid."
Police gathered in city centers and squares, waiting for disturbances or demonstration, which have become a constant in French civic life.
The power of the president in France is nearly monarchical. He can dissolve parliament, call for reelections, create a new constitution (as Chirac did in 2002, creating the republic's fifth constitution), and also push the nuclear button. Sarkozy will take office May 16 and will name a prime minister, along with other members of a new government.
The selection of Sarkozy comes at a momentous time for the region and will affect France's positions on a stalled European constitution, on Turkey's entrance into the EU, and on policy towards China-not to mention present opportunity for improvement in strained relations with the United States.
-with reporting by Emily Belz, in Aix-en-Provence, France