Hollande's withdrawal increases election uncertainties
By Eric Maurice
French president Francois Hollande will not run for reelection, in a recognition of his political weakness that only adds to the uncertainties for next year's vote.
Hollande, in a TV address on Thursday (1 December) said, "I have decided not to be a candidate for the presidential election, to the renewal of my mandate."
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"I am conscious of the risks that would entail a move that would not gather enough support," the president said to explain his decision, a first in modern French history.
He said that power had not made him "lose lucidity on myself, on the situation," and that he could not split his Socialist Party and the left with another candidacy.
"It would deprive [the left] of any hope to win against conservatism and, even worse, against extremism," he said.
In two opinion polls earlier this week, 7-7.5 percent of people said they would vote for Hollande in the first round of the presidential election, against 29-30 percent for the new center-right candidate Francois Fillon and 23-24 percent for far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Hollande's popularity has been falling almost since he took office in 2012 with enduring economic troubles, high unemployment, and fears over security despite a response to terrorist attacks seen by many as adequate.
On Sunday, Hollande's prime minister Manuel Valls said in a newspaper interview that the left had "not a chance" to win the election if Hollande ran.
He added that he would decide, "in all good conscience," whether he himself would run. Both men had to deny rumours of Hollande firing Valls.
After Hollande's speech on Thursday evening, Valls said in a statement that the president's decision was "the choice of a statesman."
Valls is now expected to announce his candidacy, before running the gauntlet of the left's primary election in January.
In a sign of how challenged Hollande was in his own camp, seven candidates have already announced that they were running for the primary, with six others skipping the primary, going straight for the presidential election
Among them are Hollande's former economic minister Emmanuel Macron, a centre-left liberal, and radical left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon. Both men polled ahead of Hollande this week, respectively with 15-16 and 12 percent support.
Ten days after his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy was knocked out in the first round of the right primaries, Hollande's withdrawal confirms the presidential election in April and May will not be a rerun of the 2012 vote between the two.
The possibility of a confrontation between France's last two presidents was considered an advantage to Le Pen, who runs on an anti-establishment platform, who all polls say will qualify for the second round of the election.
But if Valls wins the left primaries, the election will feature Hollande and Sarkozy's former prime ministers, Valls and Fillon. Whether they will be seen as a new choice by voters remains to be seen.
Valls, as PM and before that as interior minister, has cultivated an image of strong man, especially after the series of terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016 when he said that the state of emergency would remain until the Islamic State group is defeated.
He is also considered as too liberal by the left wing of his own Socialist Party and by the radical left, while his government's reform of the labour market was met with protests.
At least four uncertainties
Until recently he remained loyal to Hollande and will find it hard to distance himself from his boss's record. In the latest polls, he fared only slightly better than Hollande, with 9-9.5 percent support.
The main question until now was who would be Le Pen's opponent in the second round next year, but Hollande's decision not to run doesn't increase the left's chances in the short term.
The result of next year's election will now depend on at least four things:
Will Valls be able to invent a new Socialist narrative?
Will Macron be able to appear a serious alternative without party backing?
Will Fillon be able to appeal to voters other than the older, urban upper-class voters who chose him in the right primaries?
Will Le Pen be able to maintain her image of a fresh and credible alternative in face of three unexpected candidates?