PARIS -- French President Francois Hollande announced Thursday that he would not seek a second term in next year’s presidential election, saying he hoped to give his Socialist party a chance to win “against conservatism and, worse still, extremism” by stepping aside.
“I have decided not to be a candidate in the presidential election,” Hollande said in a surprising and somber address on French television that recapped his achievements since taking office in 2012.
The 62-year-old president - the country’s least popular leader since World War II - said he was “conscious of the risks” his lack of support posed to a successful candidacy.
“What’s at stake is not a person, it’s the country’s future,” he said.
The Socialist party has been deeply divided over Hollande’s leadership, with rebels within the party openly criticizing his pro-business strategy and calling for more left-leaning policies.
Two of his former colleagues, former Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg and former Education Minister Benoit Hamon, already have announced they would run in next month’s Socialist primary, alongside other low-profile candidates.
Like other Socialist contenders, Hollande faced a Dec. 15 deadline for entering the party’s primary. He was expected to say in the coming weeks whether he would run again.
His announcement nevertheless came as a shock to political commentators, many of whom had thought up until he confirmed otherwise Thursday that the one-term Socialist leader was posturing to seek re-election despite being low in the polls.
French network TF1 only said late in the day that the embattled leader would be speaking on its popular 8 p.m. news broadcasts, throwing French media into a frenzy of second-guessing what he might have to say.
For weeks, Hollande had kept pundits in the dark and dropped hints that he hoped to continue in his job beyond next year.
In a September speech, he repeatedly suggested he was eyeing a re-election bid.
“I will not let the image of France be spoiled ... in the coming months or the coming years,” Hollande said at the time.
Members of his entourage, including government spokesman Stephane Le Foll and Finance Minister Michel Sapin, said in recent days that Hollande was in a legitimate position to run again and to unite the left.
Hollande repeatedly had said he would seek re-election only if he were able to curb the unemployment rate in France, which for years has hovered around 10 percent. The latest figures showed a slight decrease in the jobless numbers, but didn’t seem to quell the criticism.
His announcement Thursday came just a few days after his No. 2, Prime Minister Manuel Valls, said he was “ready” to compete in the Socialist primary.
Valls praised Hollande’s “tough, mature, serious choice” in a written statement on Thursday night without saying if he would run for president.
“That’s the choice of a statesman,” he said.
Valls said Hollande had led France with a “constant concern” for protecting the French people, an implicit reference to several attacks by Islamic extremists in the country in recent years.
“I want to tell Francois Hollande my emotion, my respect, my loyalty and my affection,” he added.
In his address Hollande avoided saying if he would support Valls - or any other candidate.
The president’s office - denying rumors of an internal battle - said the two men had their weekly working lunch on Monday at the Elysee Palace in a “cordial and studious atmosphere.”
An at times emotional Hollande said during his televised remarks that he was standing aside so the Socialists would have a better chance of holding on to power, which he said was for the “interest of the country.”
Whichever candidate Socialist voters choose in January will face former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, among other rivals, in the two-round presidential election in April and May.
Fillon, 62, who won France’s first-ever conservative presidential primary on Sunday, has promised drastic free-market reforms, along with a crackdown on immigration and Islamic extremism.
Polls suggest the sober, authoritative 62-year-old Fillon would have a strong chance of winning the general election amid the widespread frustration with France’s current leadership.
He did not waste time in hammering Hollande and the Socialists in a statement sent out minutes after Thursday’s televised address.
“Tonight, the president of the republic is admitting, with lucidity, that his patent failure is stopping him carrying on,” Fillon said.
“This term ends in political mess and in the decay of power,” Fillon added, promising “action” and “results.”
Fillon, who was prime minister from 2007-2012 under ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy, enjoyed a surprise surge in popularity in recent weeks. A rise in nationalist sentiment across Europe may have favored his strict conservative positions.
France needs “a complete change of software,” Fillon said, promising in his victory speech to defend “French values.”
However, it’s expected he’ll face a strong challenge from Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party. Le Pen is running an anti-establishment campaign that particularly targets immigrants, France’s Muslim minority and the European Union.
The series of terror attacks on French soil by Islamic extremists that have left hundreds dead over the last two years has energized the country’s political right, which has vowed to take a tougher stance against immigration.
With a nod to the 2017 field, Hollande called on a collective reaction of “all progressives who must unite in these circumstances.”
“As a life-long Socialist, I cannot allow the dissipation of the left, its breaking up, because it would rid us of any hope of winning in the face of conservatism or, worse still, extremism,” Hollande said.
Centrist Emmanuel Macron, the former economy minister under Hollande, also is seeking the presidency in the general election scheduled for April-May, but has decided not to take part into the Socialist primary.