Mr. Hollande campaigned on a kinder, gentler, more inclusive France, but his victory over President Nicolas Sarkozywill also be seen as a challenge to the German-dominated policy of economic austerity in the euro zone, which is suffering from recession and record unemployment.
French voters may not like belt-tightening, but both Mr. Hollande and Mr. Sarkozy had promised to balance the budget in the next five years. The vote was viewed domestically as a rejection of the unpopular Mr. Sarkozy himself and his relentless effort to appeal to the voters of the far right National Front. Mr. Sarkozy is the first incumbent president to lose since 1981.
With about half the vote counted, preliminary results released by the Interior Ministry shortly after the last polling stations closed showed Mr. Hollande had secured about 51 percent of the vote while Mr. Sarkozy, of the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, won about 49 percent. Opinion pollsters suggested that the final result would be closer to 52 percent versus 48 percent.
“The French did not want to elect a president who is powerless: it must be given a majority, otherwise it would be absurd,” said Pierre Moscovici, Mr. Hollande’s campaign director. He called on voters to “amplify this victory” in legislative elections next month.
Mr. Sarkozy conceded defeat minutes after the polls closed, and said that he accepted “total responsibility” for Sunday’s result.
He told voters that he had called Mr. Hollande to wish him “good luck,” and thanked “the millions of French who voted for me.”
“My involvement in the life of my country will be different now,” Mr. Sarkozy said. “But time will never weaken the ties between us.”
Speaking to party members, Mr. Sarkozy, who campaigned energetically to the end, told them to “remain united” and not give in to division. He said he would not lead the party into June’s legislative elections, he said but “they are winnable.”
Mr. Sarkozy said: “I become a citizen among you.”
With anxieties rising again over the fate of the single currency, the election in France — as well as a snap parliamentary election in Greece on Sunday — was closely watched in European capitals and particularly in Berlin, where Chancellor Angela Merkel has led the drive to cure the euro zone debt and banking crisis with deep budget cuts and caps on future spending.
Such policies have come at a heavy political price for many of Europe’s leaders, whose opponents, emboldened by waves of voter resentment, have vowed to challenge the German push for deficit and debt reduction in favor of measures to stimulate economic growth.
With his defeat, Mr. Sarkozy becomes the latest leader of a country to fall victim to theEuropean debt crisis. Voters in Greece on appeared to radically redraw the political map in the country, bolstering the far left and neo-Nazi right in a wave of protest against the dominant political parties they blame for the country’s economic collapse.
But the shift in France could prove to be the most crucial. While crowds in the streets of Paris cheered Mr. Hollande’s victory, investors were a bit more cautious. Investors are concerned that Mr. Hollande might choose to spend more money to jumpstart the economy, rather than move ahead with labor market and business reforms that economists say France sorely needs to lift competitiveness and prevent it from getting caught in the euro’s financial criss.
“Markets will not attack France right away,” said Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “But there is a risk that if Mr. Hollande does not act early on, France will become the next sick man of Europe.”
Earlier on Sunday, dressed in a dark suit and accompanied by his partner, the journalist Valérie Trierweiler, Mr. Hollande, 57, cast his vote in Tulle, the capital of his Corrèze constituency. Conceding that he had slept “only briefly” overnight, Mr. Hollande, told reporters he was bracing for a long day.
“It’s up to the French people to decide if it’s going to be a good day,” he said.
Under gray skies and amid intermittent rain showers, Nicole Hirsch, a 60-year-old retiree in the working-class 20th Arrondissement of Paris, said she was voting for Mr. Hollande in the hope that he would “bring the change that France needs.”
Opinion polls published on Friday, the last day of campaigning, showed the gap between Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande had narrowed to between four and five percentage points. And Mr. Sarkozy had remained confident, predicting that the election would be decided by “a razor’s edge,” and spoke of a possible “surprise.”
But his campaign suffered double setbacks last week.
On Tuesday, Marine Le Pen — the candidate of the populist National Front who garnered 18 percent of the first-round vote — refused to endorse either the president or Mr. Hollande, saying she would cast a blank ballot. Then, on Friday, François Bayrou, a centrist who finished in fifth with 9 percent of the vote, endorsed Mr. Hollande.
Analysts have said Mr. Sarkozy will need the votes of an overwhelming majority of Ms. Le Pen’s supporters to win. But the latest surveys show the president getting little more than 50 percent of the National Front vote.
Mr. Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, cast their votes shortly before midday at a high school in the staid 16th Arrondissement of Paris. The couple left without speaking to the media.
Juan Carlos Velaure, a 57-year-old lawyer, said he voted for Mr. Hollande because he was fed up with Mr. Sarkozy’s governing style and his conception of the presidency. “He ruled over everyone,” Mr. Velaure said.
He remained unsure, however, whether Mr. Hollande would be up to the task of guiding France and Europe through the economic crisis.
“I don’t know if Hollande will help, but he is changing minds in Europe” about the need to stimulate growth along with achieving fiscal discipline, he said. “The future of France is uncertain. I couldn’t say if feel optimistic or pessimistic at this moment. We will have to see what the future holds.”