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Hollande heads to Germany after assuming French presidency

Socialist Francois Hollande assumed France's presidency Tuesday, inheriting a country fearful for its financial future and jetting off immediately to Berlin to tackle his most pressing problem: Europe's debt crisis.

A flash of lightning nearly derailed Hollande's blitz diplomatic foray, striking his plane and sending him briefly back to a Paris-area military airbase.

But Hollande quickly switched Falcon jets, flew to Berlin and took steps toward bridging differences with German Chancellor Angela Merkel over how to reinvigorate Europe's economy and its global influence. Right before leaving for Berlin, Hollande named a moderate, German-friendly ally, Jean-Marc Ayrault, as his prime minister.

During a day packed with pomp-filled inaugural traditions, Hollande promised to be less flashy than his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, and bring a more human touch to Elysee Palace. But he won't have much time to play nice as he faces a barrage of challenges, from creating jobs to getting thousands of French troops out of Afghanistan ahead of schedule.

Europe's financial troubles are Hollande's No. 1 priority. He and Merkel have opposing views on whether spending or saving is the best approach.

Hollande said Tuesday that investment in growth is crucial to reduce debt and cut deficits, saying he envisions "a balanced and respectful relationship" with Germany.

Merkel, who has argued that indebted European countries need to clean up their budgets before launching spending sprees, said her differences with Hollande have been overplayed.

Hollande's trip was a postwar custom in which new French leaders reach out to German counterparts to solidify European unity.

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.

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

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.

In Tuesday's ceremony, Hollande received the insignia of the Grand Croix of the Legion of Honor and the necklace of the Great Master of the Order of the Legion of Honor.