PARIS – Energized French voters elected reform-minded Nicolas Sarkozy as their new president on Sunday by a comfortable winning margin, preliminary results showed.
With more than half of the vote counted, the conservative Sarkozy was scoring just over 53 percent to a little more than 46 percent for Socialist Segolene Royal, according to the Interior Ministry. Polling agencies also had Sarkozy winning 53 percent of the vote compared to 47 for Royal, amid massive turnout of 85 percent.
"The people of France have chosen change," Sarkozy said in a victory speech. The charismatic but divisive figure pledged to be "president of all the French."
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Royal immediately conceded defeat. "I gave it all my efforts, and will continue," she told supporters. "Something has risen up that will not stop."
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 quietly 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.