Socialist Francois Hollande swept to victory in France's presidential election on Sunday in a swing to the left at the heart of Europe that could start a pushback against German-led austerity.
Hollande was set to beat conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy by a decisive 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent margin, the TNS-Sofres polling agency said in a projection based on a partial vote count.
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The president conceded defeat within 20 minutes of the last polls closing at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT), telling supporters he had telephoned Hollande to wish him good luck. "I bear the full responsibility for this defeat," he said.
Sarkozy, punished for his failure to rein in record 10 percent unemployment and for his brash personal style, is the 11th successive leader in the euro zone to be swept from power since the currency bloc's debt crisis began in 2009.
Socialist Francois Hollande (Photo: AFP)
Jubilant left-wingers celebrated outside Socialist Party headquarters and in Paris' Bastille square, where revelers danced in 1981 when Francois Mitterrand became France's only other Socialist president.
Hollande's clear win should give the self-styled "Mr Normal" the authority to press German Chancellor Angela Merkel to accept a policy shift towards fostering growth in Europe to balance the austerity that has fueled anger across southern Europe.
His margin also positions the Socialists strongly to win a left-wing majority in parliamentary elections next month, vital to implement his plans for a swift tax reform.
Nicolas Sarkozy voting on Sunday (Photo: AFP)
If it wins that two-round election on June 10 and 17, the Socialist Party would hold more levers of power than ever in its 43-year history, with the presidency, both houses of parliament, nearly all regions, and two-thirds of French towns in its hands.
Even before the results were declared, cheering crowds gathered at Socialist headquarters to acclaim the party's first presidential victory since Mitterrand's re-election in 1988. Many waved red flags and some carried roses, the party emblem.
Hollande, a mild-mannered career politician, had held a steady lead for weeks after outlining a comprehensive program in January based on raising taxes, especially on high earners, to finance spending and keep the public deficit capped.
As much as his own program, he is benefiting from an anti-Sarkozy mood due to the incumbent's abrasive personal style and to anger about the same economic gloom that has swept aside leaders from Dublin to Lisbon and Athens.
"If Hollande is elected, we will have eliminated for personal reasons someone remarkably competence, not just in France but in Europe," said Christian Fabry, 72, who was among Sarkozy supporters waiting dejectedly in a Paris hall for the result.
Sarkozy Needed a miracle
Sarkozy launched his campaign late and swerved hard to the right as he tried to win back low-income voters that polls show have ditched him for either the radical left or extreme right.
His aggressive rallies and promises to rein in immigrant numbers, crack down on tax exiles and make the unemployed retrain as a condition of getting benefits did not reduce Hollande's lead. Sarkozy surprised many by failing to land anything like a knockout punch in a televised debate.
Although Sarkozy shaved a couple of points off Hollande's lead in the last days of a frenetic campaign, aides privately acknowledged it would take a miracle to clinch a second term.
In two further blows in the last days of the race, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who came third in the first round with 17.9 percent, and centrist Francois Bayrou, who came fifth with 9.1 percent, refused to endorse the conservative president.
Hollande will join a minority of left-wing governments in Europe and has vowed to renegotiate a budget discipline treaty signed by 25 EU leaders in March, to add growth measures. Berlin has made the pact a pre-condition of aid for struggling states.
Hollande plans to visit the centre-right Merkel in Berlin within days of the election to discuss his ideas and planned to speak to her by telephone on Sunday evening, said Jean-Marc Ayrault, tipped as a likely Socialist prime minister.
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