On Thursday, French President François Hollande announced that he will not be running for reelection in next year’s presidential race, amid record high disapproval ratings. This is the first time in postwar history that an incumbent French president has not run for reelection.
“I have decided that I will not be a candidate,” he told the nation in an unusual television address. “In the months to come, my only duty will be to continue to lead my country.”
Hollande announced his surprise decision to head off an embarrassing showing in the primaries, says Martin Michelot, deputy director of the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy. “He would have risked a real humiliation in the Socialist primaries,” Martin told Foreign Policy, “due to deep and historical unpopularity.” Indeed, Hollande is the least-liked French president in modern history.
Last June, the French Socialist Party made the surprising and unprecedented announcement that it would hold a primary (it is, after all, the party in power). But, again, so was Hollande’s dismal approval rating, which has since only gotten worse — as FP noted, one poll put his favorability rating at 4 percent after a book was published in which the president insulted everyone from his own ministers to footballers (he had sat with the authors over 60 times for self-damning interviews). And spending $122,000 a year on haircuts may not have helped his public image.
The president’s decision to step aside “opens up space for his Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who is now the frontrunner for the party,” according to Michelot.
Valls is favored to win the French left’s primaries in January, although he will face a challenge in the form of former economic minister Arnaud Montebourg. And the Socialist candidate will not be the only left-wing candidate in the race — whoever it is will also have to face far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the general election.
It is perhaps worth noting that whoever the Socialist candidate is, is not expected to win the French presidential election. As Frédéric Bozo of the German Marshall Fund succinctly said in an interview with FP, “There’s approximately no chance that a candidate of the governing left makes it to the second round of the election in May.” That honor is expected to go to conservative candidate François Fillon and the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, whose numbers have shot up in the polls amid a nationwide surge of anti-immigrant sentiment.
A poll released Wednesday had Fillon, a free marketeer who’s been referred to as the “French Margaret Thatcher” and has written a book called Conquering Islamic Totalitarianism, taking 66 percent of the vote over Le Pen. Most centrist and socialist voters would favor Fillon over Le Pen in a second round vote scenario, says Michelot, which significantly boost his chances of winning. “Fillon has also been able to capture the Catholic conservative right that could have tilted towards Le Pen, had the conservatives presented a more moderate candidate,” Michelot added.
Hollande trailed in the poll’s fifth and final place, behind Melenchon. On one hand, this speaks to how unpopular Hollande is. On the other, who, at this point, is still trusting polls?
The president’s surprise announcement may not shape the general election in the long run. “The dynamics of the race won’t be fundamentally disturbed,” Michelot said. “We knew either Valls or Hollande would run, and one of them would be defending the government’s action.”
In his address Thursday, Hollande conceded he made mistakes, but defended his legacy of confronting climate change, fixing the national social security debt, and taking political risks to lower unemployment in a country struggling to emerge from an economic slump. But that the French people did not appreciate this legacy is also a failing of Hollande’s. As Bozo explained, “It reflects his inability to communicate whatever achievement he has.”
That’s something he will no longer need to do in a political capacity.
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