In a surprise announcement, French President Francois Hollande said Thursday that he would not run for re-election, leaving the leftist field wide open ahead of next year's vote in which the far right is expected to poll strongly.
Hollande, who announced his decision in a hastily scheduled televised address to the nation, became the first leader in recent French history not to run for a second term. He said he could not allow his already deeply divided leftist ranks to explode by running. That would end all hope for a victory in next spring's elections, paving the way for a win by conservatives, or even the far right.
Hollande's popularity has sunk to a record low — down to 4 percent last month. The left is indeed splintered, and two of his ex-ministers have thrown their hat into the ring. Many expect Prime Minister Manuel Valls to follow.
Hollande's time in office has been marred by some of the worst terrorist attacks on French soil in modern history, as well as unsuccessful attempts to significantly reduce the unemployment rate.
He nonetheless defended his record Thursday and attacked conservative candidate Francois Fillon, who won the center-right race and who is considered to have a good shot at the presidency.
The president criticized Fillon's program, which calls for implementing tough economic reforms and cracking down on immigration and radical Islam.
He also took a stab at the anti-Europe, anti-globalization platform of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who is also polling strongly.
Drawing parallels with the upset victory of Donald Trump in the United States, Hollande said Le Pen's protectionist, inward-looking policies presented the biggest dangers for the country.