Sarkozy wins French presidency amid decades-high turnout

French voters chose conservative, tough-talking Nicolas Sarkozy as France's new president, handing him a mandate for change in a runoff election against Socialist Ségolène Royal.

Conservative, tough-talking Nicolas Sarkozy has been elected as France's new president — but is expected to face resistanceonsome controversial plans, including one to lengthen the workweek.

Socialist Party Leader Ségolène Royal conceded defeat minutes after polls closed on Sunday evening, in the runoff election to choose Jacques Chirac's successor for a five-year mandate.

Sarkozy — who stepped down as Chirac's interior minister in order to run for the presidency — won with 53 per cent of the vote, according to the Interior Ministry.

"The French people have called for change. I will carry out that change, because that's the mandate I have received from the French people," Sarkozy told cheering supporters at his campaign headquarters in Paris.

"The president of the republic must love and respect all the French," said Sarkozy, who leads the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party. "I will be the president of all the French people."

Following his victory, riot police fired tear gas at demonstrators in central Paris.

According to Agence France-Presse, a few hundred stone-throwing protesters charged the police in the Place de la Bastille, where 5,000 supporters ofRoyal had earlier gathered to hear the results.

In his victory speech, Sarkozy, who admires the United States, told supporters that the Americans can "count on our friendship," adding that "friendship means accepting that friends can have different opinions."

U.S. President George W. Bush also congratulated the president-elect by phone, telling him that his country and France are historic allies and partners.

"President Bush looks forward to working with president-elect Sarkozy as we continue our strong alliance," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council.

Royal, who finished with 47 per cent of the vote, had hoped to become France's first woman president but smiled as she conceded.

"I gave it all my efforts, and will continue," she told supporters. "Something has risen up that will not stop."

Highest turnout in 40 years

The runoff election was called after the first round of voting April 22, which left Sarkozy with 31 per cent of the vote, Royal with just under 26 per cent, and none of the other 10 candidates with enough ballots to continue.

Voter turnout was projected at 85 per cent, a level not seen in France in 40 years.

Analysts had predicted that voters would turn out in droves, in part because the two candidates were so dynamic and partly because they offered such dramatically different visions for the country at a time when it has been losing global clout to neighbours Britain and Germany and even developing countries such as China and India.

Sarkozy inherits from Chirac a country struggling with stagnant wages, a lagging economy and frustration in impoverished, immigrant-heavy suburbs.

The son of a Hungarian immigrant, Sarkozy is seen by many as a polarizing figure, presenting himselfas a law-and-order candidate during the campaign.

Despised in suburbs

In the suburbs, Sarkozy is despised by many immigrant youths in the housing projects that exploded in riots in 2005. Many people have accused Sarkozy, who was interior minister in charge of security at the time, to have further inflamed tensions by calling the rioters "scum."

He is also certain to face resistance to his plans to make the French work more and make it easier for companies to hire and fire. His campaign promises included a pledge to relax the rules on the country's 35-hour work week, introduced by the Socialists in 1998.

For his first 100 days in office, Sarkozy has drawn up a whirlwind program and plans to put big reforms before parliament at a special session in July. One bill would make overtime pay tax-free to encourage people to work more, and another would put in place tougher sentencing for repeat offenders.

With files from the Associated Press