PARIS - France handed the presidency Sunday to leftist Francois Hollande, a champion of government stimulus programs who says the state should protect the downtrodden - a victory that could deal a death blow to the drive for austerity that has been the hallmark of Europe in recent years.
Mild and affable, the president-elect inherits a country deep in debt and divided over how to integrate immigrants while preserving its national identity. Markets will closely watch his initial moves as president.
He narrowly defeated the hard-driving, attention-getting Nicolas Sarkozy, an America-friendly leader who led the country through its worst economic troubles since World War II but whose policies and personality proved too bitter for many voters to swallow.
"Austerity can no longer be inevitable!" Hollande declared in his victory speech after a surprising campaign that saw him transform from an unremarkable figure to an increasingly statesmanlike one. He will take office no later than May 16.
Speaking to exuberant crowds, Hollande portrayed himself as a vehicle for change across Europe.
"In all the capitals ... there are people who, thanks to us, are hoping, are looking to us, and want to finish with austerity," he told supporters early Monday at Paris' Place de la Bastille. "You are a movement lifting up everywhere in Europe, and perhaps the world."
Celebrations continued into the night on the iconic plaza of the French Revolution, with revelers waving French, European and labor union flags and climbing the base of its central column. Leftists were overjoyed to have one of their own in power for the first time since Socialist Francois Mitterrand was president from 1981 to 1995.
Sarkozy is the latest victim of a wave of voter anger over spending cuts in Europe that has ousted governments and leaders in the past couple of years.
In Greece, a parliamentary vote Sunday was seen as critical to the country's prospects for pulling out of a deep financial crisis felt in world markets. A state election in Germany and local elections in Italy were seen as tests of support for the national governments' policies.
In France, with 95 percent of the vote counted, official results showed Hollande with 51.6 percent of the vote compared with Sarkozy's 48.4 percent, the Interior Ministry said. The turnout was a strong 81 percent.