STRASBOURG (France) • Battered by months of dismal approval ratings and a stubbornly high unemployment rate, French President Francois Hollande has announced that he will not compete in next year's election.
The unprecedented decision opened up and energised France's presidential race even as it added further turmoil to the country's unsettled politics.
It also injected new uncertainty into the political dynamic of Europe as far-right and populist forces are gaining strength across the continent, as well as in the United States.
Mr Hollande had kept France in suspense for months over whether he would seek another term, turning his choice into a kind of national guessing game.
His surprise decision was the latest in a series of shocks to French and European politics, which has been upended throughout the year by voter discontent with establishment governance.
The announcement on Thursday - issued by the Elysee Palace, the seat of the presidency - was greeted across the political spectrum as a courageous and dignified decision that, as Mr Hollande himself made clear, was intended to place the country's interests above his own.
"As a Socialist, because that is my life's commitment, I cannot accept, I cannot come to terms with the dispersion of the left, with its splitting up," Mr Hollande said in a sombre statement. "Because that would remove all hope of winning in the face of conservatism and, worse yet, of extremism."
So low had his ratings fallen - plumbing historic depths in some surveys and going as low as 4 per cent - that many of his own Socialist colleagues had warned publicly that he was headed for certain defeat if he chose to run.
More than that, hanging on to the mantle of standard-bearer for the Socialists threatened to bring the party down with him, rendering it all but irrelevant in elections next year.
That prospect had split his own political grouping wide open. He was even forced to submit to a humiliating primary election - also without precedent - to decide who would be the party's candidate. Several of his former Cabinet ministers had already announced they would run against him.
Now, with Mr Hollande out, the Socialists are thought to have improved their chances, even if only slightly. His law-and-order prime minister, Mr Manuel Valls, is likely to step up as a leading contender in the party's primary.
Mr Valls is associated with a kind of toughness that analysts and citizens found lacking in Mr Hollande, and that could help him compete in the general election against candidates from the right.
Those now include a former prime minister, Mr Francois Fillon, who was chosen on Sunday by the centre-right Republican Party's voters, and the far-right National Front's Marine Le Pen.
Both have ridden a wave of nationalist fervour, anger over immigration and worries about Islamist terrorism, and Mr Valls has sounded similarly hard-line themes.
At the same time, Mr Valls could be tainted by his association with Mr Hollande's administration.
Mr Valls welcomed the President's decision, saying it was "a difficult choice". He did not announce his candidacy, but has been suggesting he might do so soon.
Mr Hollande's failure to make a dent in the jobless rate was perhaps the most decisive blow to his presidency. The national unemployment rate is 10 per cent but it is much higher among youth in some immigrant suburbs, where it approaches 40 per cent.