Left-wing candidate François Hollande has defeated incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in Sunday's runoff, exit polls say, becoming the first Socialist to win a presidential election since François Mitterrand in 1988.
François Hollande has won France’s presidential election, giving the country its first Socialist president in almost two decades, exit polls showed Sunday.
Results by France’s interior ministry showed that left-wing candidate had claimed 51.56% of the runoff vote to incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy’s 48.44% with nearly all the ballots counted.
Celebrations are underway at the iconic Place de la Bastille in central Paris, the same spot where the last Socialist to win a presidential election, François Mitterrand, celebrated his first victory back in 1981.
Hollande, who voted on Sunday in the central Corrèze region, which he represents in the French parliament, was considered the frontrunner throughout the campaign, at times leading his rival by as much as 10% in opinion polls.
He finished ahead in the first round on April 22, claiming 28.63% of votes cast against Sarkozy's 27.18%.
In a twin blow to Sarkozy between the two rounds, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and centrist François Bayrou, who gathered around 18% and 9% respectively in the first round, both denied the incumbent an endorsement. Bayrou told supporters his personal vote would go to Hollande, while Le Pen said she would cast a blank vote.
At 80%, according to Ipsos, voter turnout was strong, though slightly lower than the 84% reached in 2007.
Hollande is due to be sworn in as France’s president on May 14 or 15.
Sunday's election capped a stunning comeback for Hollande, whose career appeared to be all but over after he left the leadership of the Socialist Party in 2008.
It also marked the end of a year-long campaign for the veteran politician, who won his party’s internal primaries in October of last year, establishing himself from the start as a moderate left-winger with the best chances of appealing to centrists and beating Sarkozy.
In an often bitter presidential campaign, Hollande promised to hire more staff to boost France’s state education system and to reduce the retirement age from 62 to 60 for people who have completed a minimum 41 years of work.
He also pledged to raise taxes on the wealthy and balance the country's budget by 2017.
And while both the far right and Sarkozy adopted an anti-immigration stance during the campaign, the Socialist candidate stood by a promise to give foreigners the right to vote in local elections.
Socialists return to power
On Sunday, Sarkozy became only the second French president to fail to claim a second mandate since Valéry Giscard d'Estaing was swept out of office in 1981.
It was also the first time the Socialist Party won a presidential contest since Mitterrand's re-election in 1988.
France's Socialists will be hoping to use the vote’s momentum to win back a majority in parliament in elections this June.
Before then, governments around the world will be keenly watching Hollande's first steps on the issue of Europe’s continuing debt crisis
The Socialist president-elect, who has emerged as a new champion for Europe's anti-austerity camp, was expected to call German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday evening.
Merkel, who has advocated strict austerity in Europe, backed Sarkozy in the elections.
“He will talk with the German chancellor because in that exchange lies the key to Europe’s recovery, redirecting Europe towards growth, competitiveness and protection,” said Jean-Marc Ayrault, a prominent Socialist who is being touted as a possible future prime minister.
A meeting of the so-called Group of Eight leading world economies on May 18 in the United States could be the first opportunity for Hollande to shake hands with President Barack Obama and other heads of state.