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France takes a step right

PARIS ” Nicolas Sarkozy, a blunt and uncompromising pro-American conservative, was elected president of France Sunday with a mandate to chart a new course for an economically sluggish nation struggling to incorporate immigrants and their children.

Sarkozy defeated Socialist Segolene Royal by by 53.06 percent to 46.94 percent with 84 percent turnout, according to final results released early Monday. It was a decisive victory for Sarkozy’s vision of freer markets and toughness on crime and immigration, over Royal’s gentler plan for preserving cherished welfare protections, including a 35-hour work week that Sarkozy called “absurd.”

“The people of France have chosen change,” Sarkozy told cheering supporters in a victory speech that sketched out a stronger global role for France and renewed partnership with the United States.

There were few reports of unrest, despite fears that the impoverished suburban housing projects, home to Arab and African immigrants and their French-born children, would erupt again at the victory of a man who labeled those responsible for rioting in 2005 as “scum.” That abrasive style raised doubts over whether Sarkozy, himself the son of a Hungarian refugee, could truly unite the increasingly diverse and polarized nation.

Sarkozy pledged in his victory speech to be president “of all the French, without exception.” But that task will not be easy. The 52-year-old former interior minister inherits a nation losing faith in itself, paralyzed by worries over globalization, bitter at American dominance and saddled with social tensions.

Late Sunday, small bands of youths hurled stones and other objects at police at the Place de la Bastille in Paris, who fired volleys of tear gas. Two police unions said firebombs targeted schools and recreation centers in several towns in the Essonne region just south of Paris.

For all his determination and talk of change, Sarkozy also is certain to face resistance from powerful unions to his plans to make the French work more and make it easier for companies to hire and fire.

“Like Thatcher in Britain, like Reagan in the United States, Sarkozy will change things,” said supporter Thierry Gauvert, 55.

The White House said President Bush had called to congratulate Sarkozy, who is largely untested in foreign policy but reached out to the United States in his victory speech, an indication of his desire to break from the trans-Atlantic tension of the Chirac era.

Sarkozy also made it clear that France would remain an independent voice.

The United States, he declared, can “count on our friendship,” but he added that “friendship means accepting that friends can have different opinions.”

He urged the United States to take the lead on climate change and said the issue would be a priority for France.

“A great nation, like the United States, has a duty not to block the battle against global warming but ” on the contrary ” to take the lead in this battle, because the fate of the whole of humanity is at stake,” Sarkozy said.

In some European capitals, Sarkozy’s victory inspired hope that he might lend a decisive hand to efforts to salvage the European Union’s hopes of greater integration, largely on ice since French and Dutch voters rejected a proposed EU constitution in 2005.

Royal’s program seemed more in line with the policies pursued under the outgoing Jacques Chirac ” who is from Sarkozy’s own party, the Union for a Popular Movement. Chirac, 74, held the presidency for 12 years but failed repeatedly to push through reforms.

The handover of power ushers in a president from a new generation, who has no memory of World War II and waged the country’s first high-octane Internet campaign.

Royal, an unmarried mother of four, would have been France’s first female president. Her defeat could throw her party into disarray, with splits between those who say it must remain firm to its leftist traditions and others who want a shift to the political center like socialist parties elsewhere in Europe.

Conceding minutes after polls closed, Royal said her campaign had launched a “profound renewal of political life, of its methods and of the left … What we tried to do for France will bear fruit, I am sure.”

“I thank from the bottom of my heart the nearly 17 million voters … who placed their trust in me, and I can gauge their disappointment,” she said. “I hope that the next president of the Republic will accomplish his mission at the service of all the French people.”

Cracks immediately started appearing in the Socialist Party, which now must try to regroup ahead of June legislative elections that Sarkozy’s party must win to give him the majority he needs to reform.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a Socialist former finance minister, noted that it was his party’s third consecutive defeat in presidential elections.

“The left has never been so weak, because the French left has still not renewed itself,” he said.

Sarkozy ” for whom the presidency has been a near-lifelong quest ” will formally take over Chirac on the very last day of his term, May 16. Sarkozy aide Francois Fillon, a favorite to be the prime minister, said that for a few days from Monday, Sarkozy plans “to withdraw to somewhere in France to decompress a little” and to prepare his government team.

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Associated Press writers Jenny Barchfield and John Leicester in Paris and Jamey Keaten in Clichy-sous-Bois contributed to this report.


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