PARIS - Nicolas Sarkozy yesterday flew off for a three-day retreat in Malta to prepare for his French presidential takeover next week, while unions warned that any plans to force through sweeping reforms would face opposition.
The rightwing former interior minister was handed a clear mandate for his promised "economic revolution" and hardline clampdown on crime and immigration. Convinced that France has shifted firmly to the right, he now needs to secure a majority for his ruling centre-right UMP party in the parliamentary election next month in order to quickly push through his sweeping reforms to cut tax, loosen the 35-hour week, slash the bloated public service and curb strike powers. But after union leaders denounced his proposals, France could face crippling strikes in the autumn, along the lines of those that plagued Jacques Chirac when he took office in 1995 and tried to impose change. "All attempt to pass things by force would backfire," Jean-Claude Mailly, the secretary general of the Force OuvriÃƒÂ¨re union said.
Mr Sarkozy's victory was marred by violence across France as police and anti-Sarkozy protesters fought running battles into the early hours of yesterday morning. Almost 600 people were arrested after demonstrators set fire to 730 cars, smashed shops and firebombed public buildings in cities across France. More than 70 police officers were injured.
The worst violence happened in Paris's Bastille area where police fired teargas and water-cannon to disperse leftwing crowds. After the teargas was fired into the crowd, protesters shouting "police everywhere, justice nowhere!" fought officers, smashing phone cabins and shop windows.
"Everyone got hit," said Sophie Wolkowitch, whose pharmacy suffered Ã¢â€šÂ¬14,000-worth (£9,500) of damage. Shopkeepers at Paris's Gare de Lyon were yesterday clearing away broken glass and graffiti.
Further clashes between crowds and police were reported in Toulouse and Lyon, where anti-Sarkozy protesters threw one of the president-elect's supporters into the RhÃƒÂ´ne. Bus shelters were smashed in the northern city of Lille and a school was set on fire in the Paris suburb of Evry in protest at Mr Sarkozy, once known as France's "top cop" and hated by many on housing estates for his divisive, uncompromising language.
In the northern department clustered around Lille, about 100 cars were torched. In Nantes, 26 people were held for questioning and six police were slightly injured after 1,000 people joined an anti-Sarkozy march. In Caen, four police were hurt and protesters tried to set fire to a local office of Mr Sarkozy's party.
The president-elect left Paris yesterday morning with his wife and son, refusing to disclose his secret hideaway, but there was speculation that he was staying at the secluded villa of an actor friend in Corsica. In Malta, however, airport sources told Reuters that he had arrived there.
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"These few days' rest were planned to put him more in the mindset of a president after the tumultuous battle," said Claude Gueant, his campaign director.
Mr Sarkozy will take over power from Jacques Chirac next Wednesday, immediately appointing a prime minister, widely expected to be his close adviser, FranÃƒÂ§ois Fillon, a former social affairs and education minister, known for pushing through difficult reforms. A streamlined government will be appointed by May 20, and Mr Sarkozy hopes a majority in next month's parliamentary election will allow him to immediately begin his promises to reform France and jump-start the stagnant economy.
After Mr Sarkozy's win of 53% to the Socialist SÃƒ©golÃƒÂ¨ne Royal's 47%, the third successive defeat of the left in a presidential election, the Socialist party was last night at war over how to reform their ailing party, which some party members said was on the verge of collapse.
What the papers said
View from the right:
What a victory, what inspiration. The masterly election of Nicolas Sarkozy is one of those that will leave a lasting impact on the country's history. It was an exceptionally vigorous and competitive campaign, with an immense turnout...and a result not achieved against the left since General de Gaulle... Empowered by the legitimacy conferred on him, the new president can now embark on a great transformation while taking care to reconcile the French people after a very clear-cut, divisive campaign. For years, the country has been afraid of change, its leaders convinced it was better to be prudent than enterprising.
View from the left:
What emotion and sadness in the face of this defeat. The disappointment is great after so much fervour, such passion, such hope in renewal. France has made a clear choice. The campaign was dignified and passionate. Sarkozy is a legitimate president, without dirty tricks... We can find his programme alarming but he has a perfect right to implement it, to move towards a France of rightwing liberalism... It's tough, but that's the people's will. Thatcher without petticoats? Get ready.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007