Socialist candidate Francois Hollande won France's presidential election runoff on Sunday, beating President Nicolas Sarkozy by a clear margin, according to projections by pollsters.

Polling institutes predicted Hollande would win between 51.8 and 52.0 percent of the vote versus Sarkozy's tally of between 48.0 and 48.2 percent.

Hollande, who had led conservative incumbent Sarkozy in polls for months, would become France's first Socialist president since Francois Mitterrand left office in 1995.

Earlier Sunday, news sites in Belgium and Switzerland published figures from several polling institutes, which French media were barred from circulating until polls closed at 8 P.M., which prediceted Hollande's victory.

About 46 million people were called on to choose their president for the next five years. Several hundred thousand voters in overseas French territories cast their ballots on Saturday. By 5 P.M., nearly 72 percent of registered voters had cast their vote, the Interior Ministry said.

By the same time in the first round, the turnout stood at 70.6 percent. Based on those figures, turnout was likely to reach around 81 percent, two polling institutes predicted, down slightly on the last election in 2007.

Sunday marked the climax of a long, emotionally charged campaign, in which Hollande portrayed himself as Sarkozy's antithesis, appealing for unity while Sarkozy courted far-right voters. Sarkozy played up his experience, saying that Hollande - who has never held a ministerial post - was unfit to lead the country at a time of crisis and that his tax-and-spend program would take the country down the road of Greece or Spain. Hollande was the first of the two candidates to vote, in his central rural stronghold of Tulle, a town of which he was previously mayor.

Wearing a dark suit, Hollande, who was accompanied by his partner, Valerie Trierweiler, said it would be a “long day... and for some of them (the French) a beautiful day, for others not.”

Sarkozy was greeted by voters shouting, “Nicolas, president,” as he voted at a school in the wealthy 16th district of Paris with his wife, former supermodel Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. Voting under grey skies in eastern Paris, Aries, a 42-year-old beauty therapist, told dpa she had voted for the incumbent. “For me there was no question of voting Hollande. He has no charisma. I want someone who will bang on the table in Europe,” she said. 

Philippe, a 58-year-old computer engineer, said he had voted for Hollande “as much out of rejection of Sarkozy” as out of support for the socialist. “I hope he will manage the crisis in a more humane way, not like the way it's being handled in southern Europe, because until now it's been a failure,” he said.

The election was being closely watched for its impact on the European Union and the euro. Hollande has said that, if elected, he will renegotiate the European fiscal compact signed by 25 leaders to add chapters on growth and employment. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has told him the pact is not renegotiable.

Polls in the run-up to the election showed Hollande enjoying a strong lead, but the gap narrowed to four points in the final days of campaigning. Sarkozy had predicted the race would be fought “on a razor edge.”

The unknown factor is the voters who supported right-wing Marine Le Pen and centrist Francois Bayrou in the first round on April 22. Le Pen came third and Bayrou came fifth among the 10 initial candidates. Le Pen said she would cast a blank vote. Bayrou endorsed Hollande, but polls showed his supporters as being divided. 

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