Nicolas Sarkozy developed a reputation ahead of the election in 2007 as someone who was not afraid to say what needs to be said, or do what needs to be done. This was really his greatest strength coming into the 2012 election on Sunday, and in my view it was generally to Mr Hollande's detriment that he tended to take a diametrically opposite approach and thereby draws attention to the contrast. It is widely accepted that Sarkozy's program of long-overdue reforms was somewhat derailed, or at least significantly diluted, by the advent of the financial crisis in 2008.
Sarkozy's conception of political leadership was one in which the president takes the country where it needs to go, regardless of popular opinion, as distinct from leadership which follows the flavour of the month and seeks short-term gains in popularity at the expense of a longer-term, sustainable vision.
Of course any elected official must strike a balance between leading his people and being led by the whim of his people. A politician who acts in defiance of popular opinion will not and should not last. But neither will those who leave themselves open to the accusation of telling their constituency what they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear (a good definition of pandering).
Mr Sarkozy's election tally of 48.3 per cent on Sunday was more to do with style than substance (which is not entirely trivial, but more of that later); let us not forget that he won a convincing victory in 2007 and that while unions and other vested interests were strongly opposed to his reforms (fancy that), the majority was clearly in his favour.
Starting with economic matters, president-elect Hollande is quintessentially anti-business. He is on record as having said he just doesn’t like the rich, and he plans to complicate France’s tax system by introducing two new bands of income tax. French politicians of all stripes tend to favour a bigger state, but Hollande doesn't seem to have noticed that the coffers are bare, pledging 60,000 new teachers over five years and 1000 new police per year.
There were fundamental temperamental differences between the two: Sarkozy is a real son of the Fifth Republic (which strengthened the executive after the weak and vacillating parliamentary Fourth Republic) and is admired by many for his decisiveness; Hollande favours taking the country in a new direction constitutionally, away from the Fifth Republic (while not quite endorsing the establishment of a Sixth Republic as outlined by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and others).
A look at Le Figaro's comparison of the two men's positions on a variety of subjects re-inforces this distinction: Sarkozy finds himself, almost without exception, either Pour or Contre, while on a number of important issues Hollande finds himself Entre Deux (Undecided).
However, Mr Hollande was not honest with the French electorate. His highly questionable flagship policy to tax the incomes of those earning over €1 million at 75 per cent (amounting to almost 90 per cent when other levies are taken into account, a policy described by The Economist last month as “dottier than a pointilliste painting”) is not only a potential disaster for a French system which is already uninviting enough to many businesses; it also risks making France the laughing-stock of Europe (and beyond).
Either Mr Hollande will not get away with imposing such a levy or France will lose all credibility as a pro-business nation for doing so. Either way, his potential for credibility is low, and the potential for significant damage to France’s business credentials is high. The Economist again:
“The ambitious will risk their savings, borrow money and toil punishing hours to create new businesses that will, in turn, create jobs and new products. But they will not do this for 25 per cent (or less) of the fruits of their labour. Zurich is only an hour away; French politics seem stuck in another century.”
Hollande’s position is completely self-serving and he has jumped the bandwagon (or scooter) of finance-bashing which has become very popular among French politicians (and elsewhere).
Furthermore Hollande will partially reverse Sarkozy's most important reform, the gradual increase of the pension age from 60 to 62, and restrict the tax exemption for employers and employees on hours worked beyond the disastrous 35 hours to companies with fewer than 20 employees. This would take France back ten years and would represent the reversal of hard-won if modest steps forward in the much-needed reform of France's bloated social model.
I do not have space to go into the foreign policy dimensions, in which Mr Sarkozy was stronger (think Afghanistan, NATO, Libya, Georgia), but the most important distinction is that Hollande plans to withdraw all French troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year (another potential disaster for that country), whereas Sarkozy, who has been hard on Hamid Karzai in recent months, plans a more reasonable and measured drawdown.
In short, the strongest argument in favour of Mr Hollande seems to be that he is not Mr Sarkozy. It is difficult for outsiders to understand why there is such visceral anti-Sarkozy feeling among some French voters, even among some in the centre or on the right.
Sad to say, it seems mostly to be an image problem: Sarkozy was considered to be too "vulgar" and "bling" and not sufficiently an embodiment of a traditionally very solemn post (though much of that erstwhile solemnity was superficial, as we know from Mitterand's secret taxpayer-funded family and Chirac's corruption). There are no serious suggestions of impropriety surrounding Mr Sarkozy's conduct; as banal as it may sound, he just seems not to be liked.
Then there is the media. The Elysée blog, which has followed the elections for the past month or so, has highlighted the peculiar nastiness of the media campaigns against Mr Sarkozy, concluding:
“French journalists tend to be left-wing. I’ve just looked up the election results for the works council at France Télévisions, for instance, and the top place (with 37 per cent) went to the Communist-backed CGT."
It is true that Mr Sarkozy veered to the right with some absurd talking-points such as halal meat, which should hardly be a priority in a time of financial crisis, but the electoral facts are what they are: regardless of his performance in the first round (and let's remember there was very little in it), he would have always needed to attract some of Marine Le Pen's votes in both rounds.
French voters did not make the sane choice on Sunday. What they did choose was to play an unintentional practical joke on Europe, but more importantly on themselves and on their country's global standing.
Chris McCourt is project manager at Oxford Conversis Ltd, a UK-based translation agency