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Hollande wins French presidency

Hollande's win makes Sarkozy France's first one-term president in 31 years France has crowned Francois Hollande as its first Socialist president in nearly two decades, marking a shift to the left at the heart of Europe.

Hollande unseated Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy in a heated election on Sunday, making the incumbent France's first one-term president in 31 years since Valery Giscard d'Estaing lost to Socialist Francois Mitterrand in 1981.

Hollande gave a rousing victory speech in Tulle, focusing on uniting France on several issues.

"To those who haven't voted for me - let them know that I hear them, and that I will be president to all. There is one France, united in the same destiny," said Hollande, who vowed to be dedicated to the causes of justice and youth.

"We will never be apart - how beautiful life is tonight!" he said before heading off to Paris.

Joyful crowds had gathered in Hollande's adopted  home town of Tulle and in front of Socialist headquarters in Paris, as news of the result spread.

Sarkozy, meanwhile, has suggested that he would step back from frontline politics after his failed re-election bid, but stopped short of confirming his retirement.

"In this new era, I will remain one of you, but my place will no longer be the same. My engagement with the life of my country will now be different, but time will never strain the bonds between us," he told supporters.

Earlier, Sarkozy urged his party to remain united. "Stay together. We must win the battle of the legislatives."

A long challenge

Hollande, who led in the polls throughout the campaign, won the April 22 first round with 28.6 per cent to 27.2 per cent 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 per cent at 5:00 pm (1500 GMT) according to interior ministry figures and as high as 80 per cent by day's end.

More than 46 million people were eligible to vote.

Sarkozy had vowed a surprise, while Hollande cautioned against assuming he will be France's first Socialist president since Mitterrand left office in 1995.

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.

Hollande has promised more government spending and higher taxes -including a 75-per cent income tax on the rich - and wants to re-negotiate a European treaty on trimming budgets to avoid more debt crises of the kind facing Greece.

That would complicate relations with Merkel, who championed the treaty alongside Sarkozy. Under Sarkozy, France pledged to rein in its spending while the rest of 17 countries that use the euro embark on a strict period of belt-tightening.

In France, that has included programmes designed to reduce government employment.

Hollande will need a strong mandate if he is to implement his proposed programme to fight EU-driven austerity measures.

Little known outside France, Hollande would soon have his diplomatic skills tested, with a Chicago NATO summit in late May and a Group of 20 summit in Mexico in late June.

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