PARIS (AP) -- Former French Socialist Party chief Francois Hollande declared victory Sunday in the party's presidential primary, urging the left to unite around his bid to unseat embattled conservative Nicolas Sarkozy in elections next year.
Hollande, a 57-year-old moderate leftist known more as a behind-the-scenes consensus-builder than a visionary, is seen by many as a welcome contrast to the tough-talking, hard-driving Sarkozy.
Sunday's vote for the main opposition party's presidential nominee comes at a time when many French citizens are worried about high state debt, cuts to education spending, anemic economic growth and lingering unemployment.
With 2.2 million votes counted after Sunday's run-off voting, the Socialist Party said 56 percent of the ballots were for Hollande and 44 percent for his challenger Martine Aubry, who had succeeded Hollande as Socialist Party leader.
The party estimates that more than 2.7 million people voted in Sunday's run-off.
"I note with pride and responsibility the vote tonight, which with more than 55 percent of the vote gives me the large majority I had sought," Hollande told supporters in party headquarters as results rolled in.
He said the victory gives him "strength and legimitacy" to take on Sarkozy, who is widely expected to seek a second five-year term in elections in April and May. Hollande pledged to reverse Sarkozy-era cuts in education funding and defend the values of the left.
Aubry quickly conceded defeat. She had sought to be France's first female president.
"I warmly congratulate Francois Hollande, who is clearly ahead. His victory is unquestionable," said Aubry, famed for authoring France's 35-hour workweek law.
The bespectacled Hollande was the longtime partner of the Socialists' last presidential candidate, Segolene Royal. The two split after Royal's 2007 presidential defeat to Sarkozy but stood side-by-side during Hollande's victory speech Sunday.
Recent polls suggest Hollande could easily beat Sarkozy in the presidential election next spring.
The incumbent's favorability ratings have hovered near the 30-percent level for months, but he is a strong campaigner and senses a rightward-majority tilt in the French electorate.
Early this year, most polls showed that the Socialists' best hope for toppling Sarkozy was Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who led the International Monetary Fund until he was jailed in May in the United States on charges he tried to rape a New York hotel maid.
Prosecutors later dropped the case, but Strauss-Kahn's reputation and presidential ambitions crashed.