Socialist Party candidate for the presidential election Francois Hollande waves after visiting a polling station near Tulle, central France. AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau
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, a 57-year-old centre-left moderate, won the vote with between 52 and 53%, according to several estimates, becoming France's first Socialist president since Francois Mitterrand left office in 1995.
Joyful crowds were gathering in Hollande's adopted hometown of Tulle and in front of Socialist headquarters in Paris, as rumours of the result spread more than an hour before French media were legally permitted to publish results.
Three polling institutes —CSA, TNS Sofres and Ipsos — estimated that Hollande had won 52% of the vote to Sarkozy's 48, based on samples of actual ballots taken before the official end of polling at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT).
Harris Interactive estimated the Socialist's score at between 52.7 and 53.3%. All the estimates were in line with previous opinion polls, which were banned from publication in France from midnight on Friday.
Hollande, who led in the polls throughout the campaign, won the April 22 first round with 28.6% to 27.2% for Sarkozy — 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, hitting 71.96% at 5:00 pm (1500 GMT) according to interior ministry figures. Over 46 mn people were eligible to vote.
The election was marked by fears over European Union-imposed austerity and economic globalisation, and Hollande has said his first foreign meeting will be with German Chancellor Angela Merkel — the key driver of EU budget policy.
The Socialist has vowed to renegotiate the hard-fought fiscal austerity pact signed by EU leaders in March and to make it focus more on growth, but is facing resistance from Merkel.
The French vote coincides with an election in Greece, where voters were also expected to punish the incumbent parties for landing the country in its bleak economic state.