PARIS, France (3rd UPDATE) – French President Francois Hollande's dramatic announcement that he will not seek a second term opens the way for his prime minister Manuel Valls to make a bid for power in next year's increasingly open election.
Hollande's decision to bow to historically low approval ratings and step down next year opens up the leftwing field in an election that is proving more and more unpredictable.
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 leftwing primaries, is now expected to throw his hat in the ring.
Polls show however that no leftwing candidate will reach the second round of the election in May.
Surveys currently tip rightwing Republicans party candidate Francois Fillon to become president, beating far-right National Front (FN) candidate Marine Le Pen in the runoff.
But after a wave of populism swept Donald Trump to the White House and led Britons to vote to leave the European Union, no-one is dismissing Le Pen's chances of victory.
The full field of candidates remains unknown and the role of independents such as Hollande's 38-year-old former economy minister Emmanuel Macron is difficult to predict.
In a solemn TV address Thursday, December 1, in which he defended his troubled 4 years in power, Hollande said: "I have decided that I will not be a candidate."
The 62-year-old Socialist has endured some of the lowest ratings of any post-war French president and a new poll released just before his announcement showed he would win just seven percent of votes in the first round of next year's election.
His term has been marked by U-turns on major policies, terror attacks, a sickly economy and embarrassing revelations about his private life.
Valls hailed Hollande's decision as "the choice of a true statesman".
The French press greeted the news with front-page headlines proclaiming "The End", "Goodbye, president" and "Hollande gives up", but there was also praise for his decision.
"It is a rare politician who sees clearly enough to remove himself from power in the interests of the greater good," the left-leaning Liberation said in an editorial.
Some 80% of the French public said they approved of Hollande's choice, according to a poll by Harris Interactive published Friday, December 2.
Even if Valls now decides to stand himself, the Spanish-born premier faces an uphill task according to opinion polls which give him no more than 11% of the votes in the first round of the presidential election.
The Socialist party began accepting candidates on Thursday for its primaries, due to take place on January 22 and 29.
Arnaud Montebourg, a leftist former economy minister, has already submitted his name.
Fillon, the favorite for the election, said Hollande's time in power "was ending with a political mess and the failure of power".
Failed to rally Socialists
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 10%.
"In the months to come, my only duty will be to continue to lead my country," he said.
Hollande has some of the lowest approval ratings for a French president since World War II.
He took office in 2012 promising to be "Mr Normal" after the flamboyant and mercurial Nicolas Sarkozy, but his tenure has been anything but ordinary.
On his watch, France has faced 3 major Islamist 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 program that included a wealth super-tax of 75% on top-earners but he shifted course mid-way through his term to embrace pro-business reforms.
And his colorful 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". – Rappler.com