08/05/2012 07:15 BST | Updated 07/07/2012 06:12 BST

Au Revoir Sarko

Even by the dismal standards set by so many European rightwing governments in the last decade or so, Nicolas Sarkozy was a uniquely repellent politician. Brash, vulgar, ostentatious, ruthless and arrogant, his appetite for power was untempered by any moral scruples.

This was a man who, according to the investigative journalism website Mediapart, received 50 million euros from the Gaddafis to help finance his electoral campaign. Yet five years later he was one of the most enthusiastic partners in the humanitarian NATO bombing campaign in Libya.

From the 2007 campaign to the election that he has just lost, Sarkozy shamelessly pandered to the worst instincts of the French population and scapegoated immigrants, Muslims and Eastern European Roma whenever it was politically expedient to do so.

So it really is a pleasure to see the back of him. But the defeat of the most loathed president in French history is not merely due to Sarkozy's abrasive and divisive personality; it's also a rejection of the politics that he represented and another sign that Europeans are turning away from the brutalist economics of the last four years.

Throughout the campaign, his opponent Francois Hollande has explicitly presented himself as an anti-austerity candidate, to an extent that has not been evident in the British Labour party, for example.

Despite Ed Miliband's populist sloganeering about Labour being a party for "everybody rather than a few at the top", Labour has essentially played an opportunistic waiting game which consists of allowing the coalition to become more and more unpopular in the hope of returning to power as the least loathed party rather than the most loved.

Miliband's team - now advised by Tony Blair for God's sake - have therefore scrupulously avoided making any concrete commitments about which cuts it will make, and/or reverse for fear of being seen as 'anti-business.'

Hollande, by contrast, now has a clear mandate from the electorate to seek alternatives. Whether he shows the same commitment in government is another matter. After all, in Spain and Greece, Socialist governments imposed sado-austerity measures that were only marginally less severe than those of their rightwing counterparts.

Nevertheless, Hollande was not wrong when he declared yesterday

6 May should be a great date for our country, a new start for Europe, a new hope for the world. I'm sure in a lot of European countries there is relief, hope that at last austerity is no longer inevitable.

Indeed there is, and the markets are clearly unnerved by this possibility, especially given the hammering that Greek voters have just inflicted on the two parties most associated with the catastrophe of the last four years.

Pasok's share of the vote fell from 40% in 2009 to just over 13%, and it has now fallen behind the left/green coalition Syriza. The conservative New Democracy party has suffered an equally precipitous drop. But the left hasn't been the only beneficiary; the neo-Nazi Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) captured 7% of the vote and has gained 19 deputies in parliament.

Coupled with the success of Marine Le Pen's Front National in the first round of the presidential elections, this is a disturbing reminder of the dangerous political forces that have gained ground as a result of the economic crisis and the generalised disenchantment with established political parties that has accompanied it.

If leftist or centre-leftist governments prove unwilling or unable to confront the EU/IMF/ECB troika and the tyranny of the markets, then voters are likely to be increasingly tempted by simplistic and xenophobic 'solutions' that blame immigrants for a crisis they did not cause.

But for the time being at least, new possibilities are beginning to emerge on the horizon. And after Berlusconi, it is a relief to be rid of another politician who in his own way disgraced the office that he held.

Sarkozy has described power as a drug, warning that "You have to let the needle out slowly." He has also spoken of his desire to work for the private sector.

Well now he can go into political rehab, and perhaps recover some of his lost amour propre by listening to his wife strumming Blowing in the Wind on her guitar.

And then he can go and make money, which like so many of Europe's politicians, is what he really served.