French leader Francois Hollande said Thursday that he will not seek a second term, making way for another leftist candidate to take on conservative Francois Fillon and far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the presidential election scheduled for May.
The surprise announcement marked the first time since France’s fifth Republic was created in 1958 that an incumbent president has not sought a second mandate, Reuters reports.
“I am aware today of the risk that going down a route that would not gather sufficient support would entail, so I have decided not to be a candidate in the presidential election,” Hollande said in a televised address.
The decision comes as polls show that Hollande is the most unpopular French president on record, as the nation struggles with high unemployment and other issues.
Hollande’s retreat makes it likely that his prime minister, Manuel Valls, will throw his hat in the ring to take part in the Socialist primaries in January.
“In doing this, I’m facing my responsibilities,” Hollande said in his address Thursday. Looking grim, he called on all people with a “progressive” political viewpoint to unite.
He also warned about the rise of populism and the far right.
“I do not want France to be exposed to risks which would cost it dear, and even threaten its unity, its cohesion, its social balance,” Hollande said.
After Britain’s shock vote to quit the EU and the US choice of Donald Trump as president, the French election next year is on course to turn into another test of voters’ anger with traditional elites.
National Front leader Le Pen has been tapping into citizens’ frustration with immigrants, austerity measures and the European Union.
The past two weeks have turned French politics on its head.
First, former president Nicolas Sarkozy was knocked out of the conservatives’ primary, and then runaway favorite Alain Juppe was beaten to the party’s nomination by Fillon, a reformist in the mould of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher.
There has been tension between Hollande and prime minister Valls, who raised the possibility in a weekend interview that he could be a candidate in the election.
Hollande beat conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in an election in May 2012 after a classic leftwing campaign in which he targeted big business and pledged to raise taxes for high earners.
But his popularity soon began to decline with a perceived lack of leadership and flip-flops on key issues, particularly tax reform, which dismayed many on the left.
His popularity has also been undermined by stubbornly high unemployment and anemic economic growth, Reuters noted.
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