Conservative Sarkozy Wins French Presidential Election

Energized French voters elected reform-minded Nicolas Sarkozy as their new president on Sunday by a comfortable winning margin.

With 75 percent of the vote counted, the conservative Sarkozy had 53.35 percent compared to 46.65 percent for Socialist Segolene Royal, according to the Interior Ministry. Turnout was a strong 85 percent.

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"The people of France have chosen change," Sarkozy said in a victory speech before hundreds of cheering supporters. The charismatic but divisive figure pledged to be "president of all the French."

Royal conceded defeat minutes after the polls closed. "I gave it all my efforts, and will continue," she told supporters. "Something has risen up that will not stop."

Sarkozy, more pro-American and pro-Israeli than most French leaders, said the United States can "count on our friendship" but added, "friendship means accepting that friends can have different opinions." He urged the United States to take the lead on climate change and said the issue would be a priority for France.

U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair called Sarkozy to congratulate him, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel wished him "much luck and success."

Sarkozy, 52, is largely untested on the global stage, but his victory speech appeared aimed at the rest of the world as he laid out his foreign policy.

Sarkozy inherits from Jacques Chirac a nation down on itself, its wages stagnant and economy lagging behind its peers, its voice in the world fading, and frustration simmering in impoverished, immigrant-heavy suburbs.

Police braced for election night violence. Settling those tensions, which fueled the 2005 riots in such neighborhoods, will be one of Sarkozy's greatest challenges as president.

Voting day showed a renewed French passion for politics, with voter rolls swelled by record numbers. Turnout was boosted by the two candidates' dynamism and the high stakes for a nation losing global clout to nations like China and India and even neighbors Britain and Germany.

Royal failed to persuade the French to put a woman in charge for the first time, and opted for more vigorous reform over her pledges of softer change that would preserve the welfare protections that many French hold dear.

For all his determination -- the presidency has been a near-lifelong quest for Sarkozy -- and talk of change, he is certain to face resistance to his plans to make the French work more and make it easier for companies to hire and fire.

All of Europe will be watching to see if succeeds. He comes from a conservative camp that has held the presidency for 12 years but failed in reform of the euro zone's second-biggest economy.

The 74-year-old Chirac's handover of power, which much take place before May 17, also marks a handover to a new generation, one that has no memory of World War II. Sarkozy waged a high-octane Internet campaign the likes of which France had never seen.

Royal, too, offered voters something different -- an unmarried mother of four with unconventional ideas of how to be a Socialist. Her defeat could throw her party into disarray, with splits between those who say it must remain firm to its leftist traditions and others who want a shift to the political center like socialist parties elsewhere in Europe.