PARIS (AP) — France handed the presidency Sunday to leftist Francois Hollande, a champion of government stimulus programs who says the state should protect the downtrodden — a victory that could deal a death blow to the drive for austerity that has been the hallmark of Europe in recent years.
Mild and affable, the president-elect inherits a country deep in debt and divided over how to integrate immigrants while preserving its national identity. Markets will closely watch his initial moves as president.
He narrowly defeated the hard-driving, attention-getting Nicolas Sarkozy, an America-friendly leader who led the country through its worst economic troubles since World War II but whose policies and personality proved too bitter for many voters to swallow.
"Austerity can no longer be inevitable!" Hollande declared in his victory speech after a surprising campaign that saw him transform from an unremarkable figure to an increasingly statesmanlike one. He will take office no later than May 16.
Speaking to exuberant crowds, Hollande portrayed himself as a vehicle for change across Europe.
"In all the capitals ... there are people who, thanks to us, are hoping, are looking to us, and want to finish with austerity," he told supporters early Monday at Paris' Place de la Bastille. "You are a movement lifting up everywhere in Europe, and perhaps the world."
Celebrations continued into the night on the iconic plaza of the French Revolution, with revelers waving French, European and labor union flags and climbing the base of its central column. Leftists were overjoyed to have one of their own in power for the first time since Socialist Francois Mitterrand was president from 1981 to 1995.
Sarkozy is the latest victim of a wave of voter anger over spending cuts in Europe that has ousted governments and leaders in the past couple of years.
In Greece, a parliamentary vote Sunday was seen as critical to the country's prospects for pulling out of a deep financial crisis felt in world markets. A state election in Germany and local elections in Italy were seen as tests of support for the national governments' policies.
In France, with 95 percent of the vote counted, official results showed Hollande with 51.6 percent of the vote compared with Sarkozy's 48.4 percent, the Interior Ministry said. The turnout was a strong 81 percent.
"Too many divisions, too many wounds, too many breakdowns and divides have separated our fellow citizens. This is over now," Hollande said in his victory speech, alluding to the divisive Sarkozy presidency. "The foremost duty of the president of the Republic is to unite ... in order to face the challenges that await us."
Those challenges are legion, and begin with Europe's debt crisis.
Hollande has said his first act after the election will be to write a letter to other European leaders calling for a renegotiation of a budget-trimming treaty aimed at bringing the continent's economies closer together. Hollande wants to allow for government-funded stimulus programs in hopes of restarting growth, arguing that debts will only get worse if Europe's economies don't start growing again.
Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel spearheaded the cost-cutting treaty, and many have worried about potential conflict within the Franco-German "couple" that underpins Europe's post-war unity.
Merkel called Hollande to congratulate him on his victory. Hollande has said his first trip would be to Berlin.
President Barack Obama also offered congratulations and an invitation to the White House ahead of this month's summit of the Group of Eight leading economies at Camp David, Md., the White House said. After that, Hollande will attend a NATO summit in Chicago, where he will announce he is pulling French troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year.
While some market players have worried about a Hollande presidency, Jeffrey Bergstrand, professor of finance at the University of Notre Dame, said it's a good thing that Hollande will push for more spending throughout Europe to stimulate the economy.