PARIS — Socialist Francois Hollande defeated conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy today to become France's next president, heralding a change in how Europe tackles its debt crisis and how France flexes its military and diplomatic muscle around the world.
Exuberant, diverse crowds filled the Place de la Bastille, the iconic plaza of the French Revolution, to fete Hollande's victory, waving French, European and labor union flags and climbing its central column. Leftists are overjoyed to have one of their own in power for the first time since Socialist Francois Mitterrand was president from 1981 to 1995.
"Austerity can no longer be inevitable!" Hollande declared in his victory speech today after a surprising campaign that saw him transform from an unremarkable, mild figure to an increasingly statesmanlike one.
Sarkozy is the latest victim of a wave of voter anger at government spending cuts around Europe that have tossed out governments and leaders over the past couple of years.
In Greece, a parliamentary vote today is 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 government's policies.
Hollande promised help for France's downtrodden after years under the Sarkozy, a man many voters saw as too friendly with the rich and blamed for economic troubles.
Hollande said European partners should be relieved and not frightened by his presidency.
"I am proud to have been capable of giving people hope again," Hollande told huge crowds of supporters in his electoral fiefdom of Tulle in central France. "We will succeed!"
Hollande inherits an economy that's a driver of the European Union but is deep in debt. He wants more government stimulus, and more government spending in general, despite concerns in the markets that France needs to urgently trim its huge debt.
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.
Europe is "going into a really serious and poor situation," Bergstrand said. Hollande "is going to become the speaker for those countries that want to do something about economic growth."
Sarkozy conceded defeat minutes after the polls closed, saying he had called Hollande to wish him "good luck" as the country's new leader.
Sarkozy, who ran the country through its worst recession since World War II and the ensuing European debt crisis, said he did his best to win a second term, despite widespread anger at his handling of the economy.
"I bear responsibility ... for the defeat," he said. "I committed myself totally, fully, but I didn't succeed in convincing a majority of French. ... I didn't succeed in making the values we share win."
Sarkozy came to office on a wave of hope for change that critics say he squandered even before the economic crises hit. They saw his tax reforms as too friendly to the rich, his divorce in office and courtship to supermodel Carla Bruni as unseemly and his sharp tongue as unfitting for his esteemed role.
With 75 percent of the vote counted, official results showed Hollande with 51.1 percent of the vote compared with Sarkozy's 48.9 percent, the Interior Ministry said. The CSA, TNS-Sofres and Ipsos polling agencies all predicted a Hollande win as well.
Hollande has virtually no foreign policy experience but he will face his first tests right after his inauguration, which must happen no later than May 16.
Among his first trips will be to the United States later this month for summits of NATO where he will announce he is pulling French troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year and the Group of Eight leading world economies.
Hollande's first challenge will be dealing with Germany: He wants to re-negotiate a hard-won European treaty on budget cuts that Germany's Angela Merkel and Sarkozy had championed. He promises to make his first foreign trip to Berlin to work on a relationship that has been at the heart of Europe's postwar unity.
Germany's foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, congratulated Hollande and called for a jointly drafted growth pact.
"Overcoming the debt crisis is a joint objective, a German-French objective," Westerwelle said. He stressed, however, that a growth pact does not necessarily mean more spending, but that it can also be achieved through enhanced structural reforms.
At home, Hollande has pledged to tax the very rich at 75 percent of their income, an idea that proved wildly popular among the majority of people who don't make nearly that much. But the measure would only bring in a relatively small amount to the budget, and tax lawyers say France's taxes have always been high and unpredictable and this may not be as much of a shock as it sounds.
Hollande wants to modify one of Sarkozy's key reforms, over the retirement age, to allow some people to retire at 60 instead of 62. He also plans to increase spending in a range of sectors and wants to ease France off its dependence on nuclear energy. He favors legalizing euthanasia and gay marriage.
Sarkozy supporters call those proposals misguided.
"We're going to call France the new Greece," said Laetitia Barone, 19. "Hollande is now very dangerous."
Sarkozy had said he would quit politics if he lost, but was vague about his plans today.
"You can count on me to defend these ideas, convictions," he said, "but my place cannot be the same."
His political allies turned their attention to parliamentary elections next month.
People of all ages and different ethnicities celebrated Hollande's victory at the Bastille. Ghylaine Lambrecht, 60, who celebrated the 1981 victory of Mitterrand at the Bastille, was among them.
"I'm so happy. We had to put up with Sarko for 10 years," she said referring to Sarkozy's time as interior and finance minister and five years as president. "In the last few years the rich have been getting richer. Now long live France, an open democratic France."
"It's magic!" said Violaine Chenais, 19. "I think Francois Hollande is not perfect, but it's clear France thinks its time to give the left a chance. This means real hope for France. We're going to celebrate with drink and hopefully some dancing."