President Nicolas Sarkozy conceded defeat Sunday when polls indicated that his rival, socialist Francois Hollande, had won France's presidential elections. NBC's Jim Maceda reports.
Updated at 9:10 p.m. ET: French President Nicolas Sarkozy has conceded defeat in France's presidential elections, saying he called challenger Francois Hollande to wish him "good luck" as the country's new leader.
Sarkozy thanked his supporters Sunday and said he did his best to win a second term, despite widespread anger at his handling of the economy.
He said "I take responsibility ... for the defeat."
Sarkozy faced voters' anger over austerity Sunday in a presidential run-off expected to replace him with Socialist rival Francois Hollande, with far-reaching consequences for efforts to fight Europe's debt crisis.
The election outcome could also have an impact on how long French troops stay in Afghanistan and how France exercises its military and diplomatic muscle around the world.
"I will be president of all," Hollande proclaimed.
"There is only one France tonight, reunited together with the same destiny."
Lionel Cironneau / AP
Socialist Party candidate for the presidential election Francois Hollande and his partner Valerie Trierweiler leave after voting in the second round of the presidential election on Sunday in Tulle, in central France.
No child of the republic will be abandoned or discriminated against.
Exuberant crowds gathered at the Socialist Party headquarters in Paris even before the official results started coming in, while Sarkozy supporters were preparing to see their man become France's first one-term president since Valery Giscard d'Estaing lost to Socialist Francois Mitterrand in 1981.
President Obama called Hollande on Sunday to congratulate him on his victory. Obama invited Hollande to visit the White House before this month's G-8 summit at Camp David, Md. Hollande is also expected to attend the NATO summit in Chicago later this month.
Hollande, 57, voted in his electoral fiefdom of Tulle in central France on Sunday. Asked that evening about unconfirmed reports that he was leading and whether he saw that as encouraging, he told a small number of reporters: "Yes, but they're only estimates. They are just starting to unload the ballot boxes now."
French law bars the publication of results before all polling stations have closed to avoid swaying the outcome, and the fine for doing that is a little more than $98,000.
Hollande campaign official Francois Kalfon was enthusiastic well before voting stations closed. He predicted a big victory party Sunday night on the Place de la Bastille, the iconic plaza associated with the French Revolution.
"There are reasonable reasons to think that there will be a new president after the election tonight," Kalfon said. He said his confidence was based on polls conducted before voting day.
Six European countries were holding elections for various levels of government Sunday.
Aside from France, they include Greece, where the results of a parliamentary vote are 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 government's policies. Serbia and Armenia also were holding elections.
Sarkozy, 57, accompanied by wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, voted at midday in Paris' 16th arrondissement. Scores of television cameras surrounded the couple, and members of the public could be heard chanting "Sarkozy! President!"
Asked Friday what he would do if he loses, Sarkozy said simply: "There will be a handover of power."
"The nation follows its course," he continued. "The nation is stronger than the destiny of the men who serve it."
The outcome of the French presidential vote could weigh heavily on talks about the European debt crisis.
Hollande has promised more government spending and higher taxes — including a 75-percent 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 Germany's Angela 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 programs designed to reduce government employment.
Sarkozy, disliked by many voters for his handling of the economy and brash personality, promised he could produce a surprise victory on Sunday.Turnout was a surprisingly high 79 percent in the first round April 22, and polls suggested that Sarkozy's best chance of an upset would come from even greater voter turnout Sunday.
Hollande has benefited from anti-Sarkozy fervor, with some voters saying their choice was more a vote against him than one for Hollande.
Stephanie Debaye, 32, said she was voting for Sarkozy's departure.
"On behalf of my compatriots, I felt quite insulted. He was so aggressive. I hope things will calm down," Debaye said outside a polling station.
Another Paris voter highlighted this anti-Sarkozy vote, saying she's backing Hollande, even though his program is "suicidal."
"He'll raise the minimum wage, increase civil servants. But France is already in debt," said Florence Macrez. His fiscal reform project will only increase the pressure especially on the middle class, she added.
Hollande beat Sarkozy by about 500,000 votes in the first round of voting on April 22, in which 10 candidates competed for the job of running the nuclear-armed country with a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council for the next five years.
Sarkozy's critics have often faulted him for his brash style, alleged chumminess with the rich, and inability to reverse France's tough economic fortunes and nearly double-digit jobless rate.
NBC's Nancy Ing contributed to this report from The Associated Press.
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