© Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images
French President François Hollande leaves the stage after a speech aboard the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier.
Battered by months of dismal approval ratings and a stubbornly high unemployment rate, President François Hollande of France announced Thursday night that he would not compete in next year's election.

The unprecedented decision opened up and energized 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 — he had been expected to run — was the latest in a series of shocks to French and European politics, which have been upended throughout the year by voter discontent with establishment governance, Mr. Hollande's included.

The announcement — issued by the Élysée 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 interests of the country 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 somber 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 — Mr. Hollande plumbed historic depths in some surveys, going as low as 4 percent — 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 spring.

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, 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, François Fillon, who was chosen on Sunday by the center-right Republican Party's voters, and the far-right National Front's Marine Le Pen.

Both have ridden a wave of nationalist fervor, 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, which has been a study in the slow slipping away of authority.

For years an unremarkable Socialist functionary who rose slowly through the ranks, waiting for his turn, Mr. Hollande owed his narrow election in 2012 more to disgust with the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, than to any personal appeal he exerted. Still, the French left was delighted that after years in the political wilderness, it finally had an apparent champion in Mr. Hollande.

But he never settled on a clear line of policy. First he campaigned as an old-fashioned Socialist, with threats against finance. Once in office, he quickly veered to giving tax breaks to companies. Finally, he tried to push through a labor-market overhaul, but largely backed down after huge street protests.

Personal scandals did not help. His image as a leader was severely weakened early on when he was photographed on the back of a motorcycle going to a clandestine tryst with an actress. A high-profile separation from his live-in partner followed, as well as a tell-all book by her.

He then dealt himself a final, perhaps fatal, blow by spending hours confiding the inner workings of his presidency to a pair of journalists.

Their book of his confessions, published this fall, was greeted with outrage by members of his party, who were baffled that the man who held the country's highest office would commit such an act of political suicide. It also made clear that he held basic doubts about socialism, enraging what was left of the party's rank and file.

Analysts have long pointed to Mr. Hollande's ideological fuzziness — dangerous for a politician faced with a French electorate that has historically demanded clarity and authority from its top leader.

But it was his failure to make a dent in France's unemployment rate — much higher than the national figure of 10 percent among youth in some immigrant suburbs, where it approaches 40 percent — that was perhaps the most decisive blow to his presidency.

Months ago, Mr. Hollande suggested that he would not run again if he could not bring it down. He made good on that promise Thursday night.

"The major commitment I made to you was to lower the unemployment rate," a melancholy Mr. Hollande said on national television from the Élysée Palace on Thursday night. "And I devoted to that, with my government, all of my energy, took all of the risks."

"I lowered taxes on companies, because that's what is needed to create more jobs. I worked to boost hiring, making worker training a top priority," Mr. Hollande said. "And I took the responsibility to reform the labor market. The results are there — later than I had said that would be, I admit, but they are there."

Actually, though, unemployment has not budged significantly during Mr. Hollande's term.

Otherwise, his short speech was a dutiful laundry list of the things he said he had accomplished: legalizing same-sex marriage, the Paris climate accord, help for schools, reorganizing France's local governments. It all lacked a defining stamp, as Mr. Hollande himself appeared to recognize.

There was a sense of relief in the immediate reactions of his Socialist colleagues.

"This was a difficult choice, reflective and serious," Mr. Valls said.

"I want to express to François Hollande my emotion, my respect, my loyalty and my affection," Mr. Valls added. He did not announce his own candidacy, but he has been suggesting that he might do so soon.

The National Front reacted with glee and mockery to Mr. Hollande's decision, even though it is now likely to face a much tougher Socialist opponent next year.

"It was smart, smart of François Hollande," said Florian Philippot, a top National Front official. "It's a good thing for France and the French. It says much about the sense of weariness, the deliquescence, of this term."