|Hollande wins French presidency|
As Socialists celebrate their first president in nearly 20 years, Sarkozy urges his party to remain united.
Hollande's defeat of Sarkozy made for the first time in 31 years that an incumbent president has been unable to be reelected [Reuters]
France has crownedAn end to 'MerKozy' partnership
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.
Al Jazeera's Andrew Simmons in Tulle, where Hollande is expected to give a brief vicotry speech tonight, said that there are high expecations of a man who "has never even held a junior ministerial post".
"He's certainly proved popular despite a background that really is pretty boring, politically."
Joyful crowds were gathering in Hollande's adopted home town 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.
Al Jazeera's Jacky Rowland, reporting from Paris, said the final votes are yet to be counted, but the result was sufficiently clear.
"A very clear, very decisive margin there, and already, we're seeing the scenes - cars hooting as they drive down the Champs-Élysées...and crucially, the Place de la Bastille, the traditional celebration ground of the socialist movement," said Rowland.
Sarkozy suggested on Sunday 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.
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.
Al Jazeera's Nick Spicer, reporting from Berlin, said that Merkel has made it clear that she would like to see a Sarkozy victory.
"She was, in fact, supposed to campaign with him, but it became clear to people in Sarkozy's entourage that that might actually work against him because French voters didn't want to be told that what they needed was a German-style austerity in their country, so it wasn't really a vote-winner, it was a bit of an embarrassment," said Spicer.
But, said our correspondent, a plan is in place to work with Hollande as president.
"The noises we are getting out of Berlin are that they would very quickly try to find a working relationship. Hollande himself has said that his first phone call tonight would be to German Chancellor Angela Merkel."