Francois Hollande's decision not to run again for the presidency reflects the populist currents washing across Europe, not to mention the popularity of the far-right National Front. Elizabeth Bryant reports from Paris.
President Francois Hollande's shock announcement that he will not seek reelection throws wide open the leftist primaries in France, but experts say it remains unlikely to change the outcome of next spring's presidential elections which many believe will be won by the right.
Hollande's Prime Minister Manuel Valls is now widely expected to step into the race, as he has hinted he would do. But with Valls saddled with the same political legacy as Hollande, his fate remains uncertain at best.
More broadly, analysts say, the latest developments reflect the populist and anti-establishment mood currently pervading Europe and the US.
"Francois Hollande's decision really has an historic meaning, first because of this wave of populism across the western world," analyst Philippe Moreau Defarges of the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations told DW. "But also for a reason that comes from France; the Gaullist presidency has ended."
His decision makes Hollande the first French president in modern history not to seek a second term. While defending many parts of his record, Hollande acknowledged his deep unpopularity - with approval ratings as low as four percent - would further weaken the already fractured left.
His announcement was greeted with widespread approval - a Harris poll on Friday found 80 percent of French backed his decision.
Across the political spectrum, many politicians saluted his "courageous" and "dignified" withdrawal. But conservative primary winner Francois Fillon, considered a front runner for the presidency, also described Hollande's term as ending in "political turmoil and creeping rot," while far-right leader Marine Le Pen said it "marked a very serious political failure."
A difficult presidency
Hollande steered the country through particularly tumultuous times that included three major terrorist attacks in France and upheaval in the Middle East and Africa. He had a hard time shaking his image as an indecisive leader or delivering on promises to grow the economy and jobs.
Several ministers left his cabinet, two of whom have thrown their hat into the presidential race. Perhaps the last straw were the deeply controversial remarks about Islam, immigration and even the justice system Hollande made to two journalists in a tell-all book this fall.
Hollande's departure, however, may not boost the chances of his leftist party.
"The Socialist Party and the left are confronted with the same problem today - their divergence on economic questions," said Bruno Cautres of the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po University in Paris.
Those differences will play out in next month's Socialist primaries that may well pit more centrist Prime Minister Valls against Hollande's onetime Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg, who accused Hollande earlier this year of "betraying the ideals of the left."
"Manuel Valls will face the same criticism as Hollande," Cautres told DW. "And for others in the left, economic competitiveness is the only solution."
There are other unknowns in the race, starting with the fate of another former economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, who is riding a popular wave as a self-styled outsider. His support may be diluted, however, if another more seasoned centrist, Francois Bayrou, decides to run.
Fillon the frontrunner?
For the moment Fillon, a former prime minister who won the conservative primary by a landslide last Sunday, is widely tipped to be France's next leader. But so far, he has failed to win over a disgruntled working class, more supportive of the far right's Le Pen.
"It could transform the second round of voting, if it's between Fillon and Marine Le Pen, into something unprecedented; a National Front seen as the defender of the working class," said Cautres, who nonetheless dismisses Le Pen chances of winning.
Whatever the outcome, many observers say it marks a radical change in French politics, opening up a new and uncertain chapter.
"We see a whole series of tensions that are putting pressure on French democracy and the Fifth Republic," Cautres said of a political system founded in 1958.
Already, he notes, two party bosses have been ousted in this fall's primaries: former Cecile Duflot, of the Greens party, and conservative ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy.
"There's a popular sentiment that politicians can be fired as rapidly as they're voted into office," said Cautres drawing parallels to similar protest trends in Europe and the United States.
"We are moving to new and very difficult times," Moreau Defarges agreed. "Something is changing, and it means that we are going to have new leaders."