National/World

Lightning hits French president's plane, none hurt

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Socialist Francois Hollande took over as France's president Tuesday and jetted off to Berlin hours later for talks on Europe's debt crisis -- only to have his plane struck by lightning. No one was hurt.

It was a startling beginning for a man who promised to be a more "normal" president, and less flashy than his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, who was ousted by voters after a single term for his handling of a stagnant economy plagued by joblessness.

After a succession of rain-drenched and pomp-filled ceremonial inauguration events, Hollande took off in a Falcon 7X aircraft for Berlin. The plane was hit by lightning shortly afterward, and returned to the Villacoublay air base outside Paris as a precaution for inspection, Defense Ministry spokesman Gerard Gachet said.

Defense officials say the president and his entourage were transferred to another aircraft, a Falcon 900, and left shortly thereafter. That made Hollande about an hour and a half late for his first meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Hollande was following a postwar custom for new French leaders to reach out to their German counterparts to solidify European unity. Right before leaving for Berlin, Hollande named a moderate, German-friendly member of his Socialist party, Jean-Marc Ayrault, as his prime minster.

The new French president and Merkel are in different camps when it comes to solving Europe's debt crisis. While new figures Tuesday showed the 17-nation eurozone has avoided a new recession, thanks largely to Germany, political turmoil in Greece was reviving fears about the fate of their shared euro currency.

Hollande, elected May 6 as France's first Socialist president since Francois Mitterrand left office in 1995, rode to the presidency on a wave of resurgent leftist sentiment amid Europe's debt woes and protests against capitalism around the world.

The 57-year-old displayed his populist touch in between Tuesday's ceremonies, stopping for handshakes -- and even a kiss -- with adoring fans.

Arriving Tuesday morning at the 18th-century Elysee Palace, the traditional residence of French presidents, Hollande was greeted by Sarkozy on the red-carpeted steps. The two held a 40-minute private meeting that is traditionally the moment when the outgoing president hands over the codes to France's nuclear arsenal.

Hollande was declared president after the head of the constitutional court read out the final results of the May 6 election.

The new president immediately acknowledged the challenges he inherits: "a massive debt, weak growth, high unemployment, degraded competitiveness, and a Europe that is struggling to come out of crisis."

In his speech, Hollande promised to fight financial speculation and "open a new path" in Europe. He has pushed back against a European budget-cutting pact championed by Merkel and Sarkozy.

"To overcome the crisis that is hitting it, Europe needs plans. It needs solidarity. It needs growth. To our partners, I will propose a new pact that will tie the necessary reduction of public debt with the indispensable stimulus of the economy," he said.

Hollande also pledged to bring "dignity and simplicity" to the presidential role -- something voters felt that Sarkozy did not always do.

The French mood is glum. Many voters looked to the inauguration as a rare moment of national pride and to Hollande's presidency as a new opportunity to make things better.

Earlier Tuesday, the state statistics agency released new figures showing that the French economy had failed to grow in the first quarter. Some economists predict a contraction ahead, which would complicate Hollande's promises to rein in the deficit.

World markets and other European leaders will be watching closely to see whether and how Hollande follows through on his campaign promises, such as pulling French troops out of Afghanistan, freezing gasoline prices and hiking taxes on the rich. Observers expect that once he settles into the presidency, he's likely to fall back into the moderate consensus-building that has characterized his career.

Crucial to Hollande's presidency will be his relationship with Merkel, the German chancellor.v The announcement of lawmaker Ayrault (ay-ROW) as prime minister may well prove an advantage for this relationship. Ayrault, who leads the Socialists in Parliament, is a German speaker and a former teacher of the language of Goethe. The 62-year-old Ayrault and Hollande are said to be very close.

After the Berlin visit, Hollande heads later this week to the United States to meet President Barack Obama and attend summits of the Group of Eight and NATO.

In the ceremony Tuesday, Hollande received the insignia of the Grand Croix from the hands of Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin, who heads the prestigious Legion of Honor, and the necklace of the Great Master of the Order of the Legion of Honor. Each linked medallion of the necklace bears the name of a president, with Hollande's name recently added.

Hollande shook hands with many of the hundreds at the ceremony, then reviewed troops in the palace gardens. Following tradition, 21 shots were fired from cannons at the Invalides, a domed complex on the opposite side of the Seine River that holds Napoleon's tomb.

Rain started pouring down on the famed Champs-Elysees avenue as Hollande rode up its center, standing in the sunroof of his hybrid Citroen DS5, trailed by dozens of Republican Guardsmen on horseback and motorcycle. His suit was visibly drenched within moments. He then headed for the Arc de Triomphe, and its monument to the unknown soldier.

His second presidential speech of the day focused on education, as he pledged to create 60,000 new teaching jobs in the aftermath of cuts Sarkozy had made.

Hollande, who has never been married, was joined for the Elysee ceremonies and in his motorcade car Tuesday by his girlfriend, journalist Valerie Trierweiler.

Hollande's former partner and the mother of his four children, Segolene Royal, joined him later Tuesday in a ceremony at Paris City Hall. Royal, a prominent Socialist politician, was runner-up to Sarkozy in the 2007 election. She is angling for a top job under Hollande's presidency.

Hollande's first presidential meal reflected relative modesty, at least by French culinary standards: lobster and citrus terrine, cote de boeuf, and strawberry macaron cookies for dessert.

Sarkozy left the palace hand-in-hand with wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, had a last handshake on the palace steps with Hollande, then was driven away. Former staff members gathered in the palace courtyard applauded loudly as Sarkozy left, and fans at the Elysee gates waved signs reading "Nicolas, merci!"

(Copyright ©2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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