Socialist challenger Francois Hollande defeated incumbent Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy by a relatively narrow margin here Sunday to become the next French  president for a five-year term. Exit polls at the close of ballot boxes gave Hollande 51.8 percent of votes compared with 48.2 percent for Sarkozy.
Voter turnout was lower than expected at 80.4 percent and these estimates may vary slightly as counting continues into the night.But Sarkozy's defeat is certain and the new Socialist president is expected to take office around May 15, sources indicated.
The election  was highly contentious and often bitter, with Hollande blaming Sarkozy for the mismanagement of the economy, for the country's high 10 percent unemployment and for selling out to German austerity in Europe.The new president says he will seek to renegotiate an important EU treaty signed several months ago to tackle the burgeoning debt crisis in Europe and the threat to the stability of the Euro. He says he will travel almost immediately to see Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin and demand that the treaty be amended to include provisions to promote economic growth.
Sarkozy , 57, said during the campaign that he was almost powerless to act in view of the economic, financial and monetary crises that swept most of the world since the "subprime" debacle in the United States in 2008. He also cited the ensuing financial crisis and the Euro-debt and currency crisis as factors for France's economic difficulties.
Hollande, also 57, says he will make the rich pay more tax and will improve the lot for workers and the less well-off. He also says he will take initiatives on a number of social issues, but it is still unclear how far he can go and how these will be financed.
Hollande says he will hire 61,000 more teachers over the five-year period and will tackle youth unemployment. The new president has also vowed to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan before the end of 2012, a year earlier than the timetable set out by Sarkozy, which was itself a year earlier than the NATO timetable for withdrawal.
Policy in the Middle East  is unlikely to change radically with Hollande, as this is an area where there are no major disagreements between right and left.
Like the Conservatives, the Socialists have close ties with Israel and these are likely to be unaffected by the new regime. Most important now is how the Socialists and their leftist allies fare in the June legislative elections, which they must win to form a government sympathetic to Hollande .
This is usually the case after a presidential win, but on a couple of occasions the president has found himself governing with an opposition majority in parliament, a phenomenon that the French call "cohabitation".