So, farewell then, François Hollande

He left the announcement as late as he decently could, but French president François Hollande announced overnight that he would not be a candidate for re-election. He will serve out his term until next May, leaving someone else – most probably prime minister Manuel Valls – to be the Socialist standard-bearer in next year’s election.

Hollande is the first president of the fifth republic to decline to contest a second term. Of his six predecessors, one died in office, two were defeated and three re-elected.

But Hollande’s poll numbers have been so abysmal that had he run he was given almost no chance of making the second round. Indeed there was a risk that he would not even run third (as Socialist Lionel Jospin did in 2002) but fifth, behind centrist Emmanuel Macron and the far left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

As I explained the other day, there is a large middle ground available between the two presidential front-runners, François Fillon and Marine Le Pen. Hollande’s withdrawal may increase slightly the chance of a single centre-left candidate picking up most of that support, but it remains a remote prospect.

There were high hopes for Hollande when he took office in May 2012. At a time when the European left seemed to have lost its way, he promised to steer a middle course between the extremes of undue austerity and old-fashioned socialism. But the economy responded sluggishly, and his divided party never seemed able to settle on a clear direction.

Hollande promised early on that he would not run again if he could not get France’s unemployment rate back down to acceptable levels. This year it finally seems that progress is being made, but it will take much more to impress the electorate. The struggle against terrorism also scarred Hollande’s term; for a time it seemed to produce a rally in his approval ratings, but it also raised a host of divisive issues that have further confounded the government.

Both colleagues and opponents paid tribute to Hollande after his announcement, although Fillon, his most likely successor, took the opportunity to remark that “his obvious failure prevented him from going any further.” Whether there’s anything much that Hollande could have done differently, or whether any other president would have fallen victim to Frances’s problems in much the same way, will remain forever unknowable. My guess is that history will treat him a good deal more kindly than the current opinion polls.

But the Socialist Party now needs to put Hollande behind it and focus on marshalling as much unity as it can for next year to take on the centre-right and the far right. It’s going to be an uphill task.

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