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French President Francois Hollande delivers a speech after awarding Olympic and Paralympic athletes the Legion of Honour (Legion d'Honneur) at the Elysee Palace in Paris December 1, 2016. ― Reuters picFrench President Francois Hollande delivers a speech after awarding Olympic and Paralympic athletes the Legion of Honour (Legion d'Honneur) at the Elysee Palace in Paris December 1, 2016. ― Reuters picPARIS, Dec 2 ― French President Francois Hollande’s dramatic decision not to seek a second term next year leaves the leftwing field open in an election that is proving increasingly unpredictable.

Hollande announced yesterday he would not seek re-election next April, bowing to historic low approval ratings.

“I have decided that I will not be a candidate,” the 62-year-old Hollande said in a solemn televised address from the Elysee Palace in Paris.

Manuel Valls, who had been a loyal prime minister to Hollande until recently but hinted at the weekend he might run against his boss in planned primaries, is expected to throw his hat in the ring. 

The president conceded he had failed to rally his deeply divided Socialist Party behind his candidacy and keep a promise to slash unemployment, which hovers at around one in 10 of the workforce.

“In the months to come, my only duty will be to continue to lead my country,” he said.

The Socialist leader has some of the lowest approval ratings for a French president since World War II.

His term has been marked by U-turns on major policies, terror attacks, a sickly economy and embarrassing revelations about his private life.

A new poll on Wednesday predicted he would win just seven percent of votes in the first round of next year’s election ― strengthening Socialist Party critics who view him as a lame duck.

Voter surveys currently tip rightwing Republicans party candidate Francois Fillon to win the election, with the far-right National Front (FN) candidate Marine Le Pen seen as the closest challenger.

But the full range of candidates remains unknown and the role of independents such as 38-year-old ex-economy minister Emmanuel Macron are difficult to predict.

The emergence of Fillon threw up a surprise in itself. At the start of the rightwing primary, he was considered a distant third, only to roar through the field and win comfortably.

Hollande’s decision flings open the door to others vying to be the Socialists’ champion. 

The party began accepting candidates on Thursday for its primaries, due on January 22 and 29. The presidential elections are due on April 23, with a runoff on May 7.

Arnaud Montebourg, a leftist former economy minister, has already submitted his name.

A mixed legacy

Valls spoke out against Hollande in October after the publication of a devastating book called A President Shouldn’t Say That featuring interviews with the president.

The best-seller was the last straw for many loyalists, for Hollande was seen as sniping at judges, the national football team and even his own government’s policies.

But the prime minister praised Hollande’s Thursday announcement as “the choice of a true statesman”, while Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said it was a “dignified and courageous decision”.

The French press was less forgiving, with Friday’s front page headlines proclaiming “The end”, “Goodbye, president” and “Hollande gives up”. 

Hollande took office in 2012 promising to be “Mr Normal” after the flamboyant and mercurial Nicolas Sarkozy, who married supermodel Carla Bruni while in office.

But his tenure has been anything but ordinary. 

France has faced three major Islamist-inspired terror attacks ― firstly against Charlie Hebdo magazine in January 2015, then in Paris the following November and in Nice in July.

On economics, Hollande started with a leftist programme that included a wealth super-tax of 75 per cent on top-earners but he shifted course mid-way through his term to embrace pro-business reforms.

And his colourful personal life has never been far from the headlines, leading his opponents to claim he has demeaned one of the most powerful political offices in Europe.

In January 2014, celebrity magazine Closer published pictures of him arriving on a scooter at an apartment near his official residence for secret trysts with a French actress, Julie Gayet.

The revelations led to the break-up of Hollande’s relationship with partner Valerie Trierweiler who went on to write an eviscerating book which claimed the president mocked poor people as “the toothless”.

Hollande listed his achievements on Thursday night, saying he had worked to “get France back on track and make it more fair” through reforms to the economy, social security and education.

He pointed to a global accord on climate change signed in Paris last year as part of his legacy, as well as his handling of the terror attacks when he had sought to heal and comfort a wounded country.

He also brought in gay marriage in 2013. ― AFP

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