French Socialists seek new champion after Hollande bows out

Clare BYRNE, Guy JACKSON

Paris (AFP) - French Socialists were seeking a new standard-bearer Friday after President Francois Hollande decided against running for a second term, paving the way for Prime Minister Manuel Valls to enter a race already rich in upsets.

Facing up to record low approval ratings, Hollande announced Thursday that he would step down next year, making history as the first sitting French president not to seek re-election.

The ambitious Valls, who had been a loyal prime minister to Hollande until recent months when he began distancing himself from his boss, is now expected to throw his hat in the ring.

On Friday, Valls hinted as much, saying: "We must defend our record. We must defend our actions, and I will do it."

Polls suggest however that no leftwing candidate will reach the second round of France's presidential election in May.

Surveys currently tip rightwing Republicans party candidate Francois Fillon to become president, beating far-right National Front (FN) candidate Marine Le Pen in the runoff.

But with French voters showing signs of the deep disillusionment that swept Donald Trump to the White House and led Britons to vote to leave the European Union, no one is dismissing Le Pen's chances of victory.

The full field of candidates remains unknown and the lure of independents such as Hollande's 38-year-old former economy minister Emmanuel Macron is difficult to gauge.

Hollande's abdication seals the downfall of yet another political heavyweight, after Fillon crushed ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy and ex-premier Alain Juppe -- the longtime favourite to be France's next leader -- in a rightwing primary.

Valls hailed Hollande's decision as "the choice of a true statesman".

- 'The greater good' -

Looking grave, Hollande said his decision not to run again was taken in the "country's best interest" and to try to improve the fortunes of the ailing Socialists.

Defending his record, he pointed to the legalisation of gay marriage and his leadership in the face of terror attacks among his achievements.

"In the months to come, my only duty will be to continue to lead my country," he said.

The press mainly praised his decision, calling it "courageous" and "dignified".

"It is a rare politician who sees clearly enough to remove himself from power in the interest of the greater good," the left-leaning Liberation said in an editorial.

Some 80 percent of the French public said they approved of Hollande's choice, according to a poll by Harris Interactive published Friday.

Le Pen was less indulgent, saying it showed the "huge failure of his term in office".

Fillon said the Hollande era "was ending with a political mess".

Hollande, 62, had endured some of the lowest ratings of any post-war French president.

A new poll released just before his announcement showed him winning just seven percent of votes in the first round of the election in April.

His term has been marked by policy dithering, a sickly economy and embarrassing revelations about his private life.

The Spanish-born Valls faces an uphill task to win back leftist voters unhappy with what they see as the government's pro-business leanings.

The Socialist party began accepting candidates on Thursday for its primaries, due to take place on January 22 and 29.

Arnaud Montebourg, a former economy minister who advocates more protectionist policies, has already submitted his name.

- Damaging book -

Hollande took office in 2012 promising to be "Mr Normal" after the flamboyant and mercurial Nicolas Sarkozy, but his tenure has been anything but ordinary.

On his watch, France has faced three major Islamist terror attacks -- first against Charlie Hebdo magazine in January 2015, then in Paris the following November and in Nice in July.

His complicated personal life made front-page news in 2014 when he was photographed arriving on a scooter at an apartment near the presidential palace for a tryst with actress Julie Gayet.

The revelations led to the break-up of Hollande's relationship with his partner Valerie Trierweiler who went on to write an eviscerating book which claimed the president mocked poor people as "the toothless".

But more damaging revelations were to come, in a book of interviews with two journalists from Le Monde newspaper titled "A President Shouldn't Say That" that alienated some of the Socialist top brass.

In it Hollande criticised Islam, the French football team, and "cowardly" judges.