Francois Hollande was elected France’s first Socialist president in nearly two decades on Sunday, dealing a humiliating defeat to incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and shaking up European politics.
The result will have major implications for Europe as it struggles to emerge from a financial crisis and for France, the eurozone’s second-largest economy and a nuclear-armed permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Hollande won the vote with about 52 percent, according to several estimates from polling firms based on ballot samples, becoming France’s first Socialist president since Francois Mitterrand left office in 1995.
He wasted no time in pushing his agenda, telling a crowd of cheering supporters that “France chose change” and warning fellow European leaders that he would move ahead with his vow to refocus EU fiscal efforts on growth.
“I am sure that when the result was announced, in many European countries there was relief, hope and the notion that finally austerity can no longer be the only option,” he told a crowd in his adopted hometown of Tulle.
“And this is the mission that is now mine — to give the European project a dimension of growth, employment, prosperity, in short, a future,” he said.
“This is what I will say as soon as possible to our European partners and first of all to Germany… We are not just any country on the planet, just any nation in the world, we are France.”
Sarkozy had earlier conceded defeat and signalled that he intends to step back from frontline politics.
“The French people have made their choice… Francois Hollande is president of France and he must be respected,” the outgoing leader told an emotional crowd of supporters, adding that he had wished his successor well.
“In this new era, I will remain one of you, but my place will no longer be the same. My engagement with the life of my country will now be different,” he told supporters.
Sarkozy stopped short of confirming his retirement, but leaders in his right-wing UMP party told AFP that he had told them he would not lead them into June’s parliamentary elections.
“We are rid of a poison that was blighting our society. A normal president! It gives us a lot to dream about,” said Didier Stephan, a 70-year-old artist among throngs celebrating at Paris’s Place de la Bastille.
Hollande led in opinion polls throughout the campaign and won the April 22 first round with 28.6 percent to Sarkozy’s 27.2 percent — making the right-winger the first-ever incumbent to lose in the first round.
Grey skies and rain showers greeted voters across much of France, but turnout was high, with pollsters saying more than 80 percent of the 46 million eligible voters had cast ballots.
Official results were coming in, with the interior ministry saying that with 78 percent of votes counted at 1945 GMT Hollande was ahead with 51.1 percent.
The election was marked by fears over European Union-imposed austerity and globalisation, and Hollande has said his first foreign meeting will be with German Chancellor Angela Merkel — the key driver of EU budget policy.
The 57-year-old Socialist has vowed to renegotiate the hard-fought fiscal austerity pact signed by EU leaders in March to make it focus more on growth.
Hollande appeared to be winning over European leaders quickly on Sunday, with some capitals already echoing his call for growth measures.
“We will work together on a growth pact,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told reporters in Berlin. “I am confident the Franco-German friendship will be further deepened.”