France's Hollande says will not seek re-election

Paris (AFP) - French President Francois Hollande dramatically announced Thursday he would not seek re-election next April at the end of his five-year term as he bowed to historic low approval ratings.

The withdrawal means the 62-year-old Socialist will be the first president of France's fifth republic, founded in 1958, to quit after just one term.

"I have decided that I will not be a candidate," Hollande said in a solemn televised address from the Elysee Palace in Paris.

He 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 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.

-Divided Socialists-

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 while ambitious Prime Minister Manuel Valls would also be expected to stand.

Valls, unfailingly loyal until recently, upped pressure on Hollande at the weekend to step aside when he hinted he might run against his boss in the primaries.

He also 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.

"It's the choice of a true statesman," Valls said in a statement after Hollande's announcement.

Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called it a "dignified and courageous decision."

- Mr. Normal? -

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 normal.

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 percent 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".

- A mixed legacy -

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.

On unemployment -- which Hollande had promised to roll back before the election -- he admitted that "the results are coming, later than I had promised them, but they are there."

Hollande's decision came on a day when the left-leaning Le Monde newspaper delivered a withering assessment of his time in office.

Le Monde wrote in an editorial that he had "not given a meaning to his time in office, occupied the job with authority or imposed himself as the legitimate candidate for his party."