PARIS (Reuters) - Francois Hollande staked his political fate on a promise to bring down unemployment, and it was his failure to turn around the economy that made him France’s most unpopular president ever.
In a glum address from the Elysee Palace on Thursday, Hollande became the first modern French head of state not to seek re-election, acknowledging he lacked the support to win.
As his five years in power draw to a close, the 62-year-old Socialist stands accused of disappointing, even betraying, many of those who bought into his 2012 campaign promises to take on the bankers, shorten the dole queues and shift more of the tax burden to the rich and ultra-rich.
His main failing in the eyes of many former supporters is his inability to live up to promises that he would spare France the kind of spending cuts many other countries were undergoing, and above all bring down a jobless rate of 10 percent.
The economy is only now, and slowly, starting to emerge from years of near-stagnation. The jobless rate remains stubbornly higher than the European average - even if Hollande maintains that monthly figures show the trend now pointing downwards.
A warm and witty person in private, he was often stiff in public and derided as a ditherer by his peers. Some of his political rivals nicknamed him Flanby, in a reference to the brand name of a quivering baked-egg dessert.
On the foreign policy front he was no waverer, however. Less than a year after winning the May 2012 election, he sent troops into the former French colony of Mali to help thwart the seizure of power by Islamist rebels as they descended from the north on the capital Bamako.
Hollande was not well known outside France when he was elected after 30 years working in local government and negotiating the internal politics of a faction-fraught Socialist Party. He never held a ministerial post.
Thrust to the forefront after Socialist front-runner Dominique Strauss-Kahn self-destructed in a sex scandal, Hollande marketed himself as a “Mr Normal” who would end the brash “bling-bling” style of his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy.
Many attribute his victory in 2012 to “Sarkozy fatigue” more than to voter enthusiasm for his flat speaking style and relatively classic Socialist tax-and-spend program.
As well as failing to deliver prosperity, he lost trust among many core voters by adopting a more business-friendly strategy half-way through his term.
It included a series of costly tax-credit incentives for business that, whatever their merits, contrasted starkly with the anti-bank rhetoric of his campaign.
When the 75 percent tax he slapped on the super-rich was quickly phased out, Hollande stood accused of betraying Socialist ideals at home and challenged to dispel his anti-business reputation abroad.
The switch was symbolized by a change at the economy ministry, where leftist firebrand economy minister Arnaud Montebourg resigned to be replaced by the smooth former investment banker Emmanuel Macron. Both men now are now candidates to replace him in next year’s presidential battle.
Hollande was widely credited with a dignified and statesmanlike response to Islamist militant attacks that killed 17 people at the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper and a Jewish supermarket in January 2015.
But then came two more mass killings where more than 200 more people were killed in Paris and the Riviera city of Nice. French jets have since been bombing bases of the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq on his orders.
On the home front, a hallmark of his tenure will likely be the legalization of gay marriage in 2012. That was a promise he saw through despite waves of street protests by traditionalists opposed to a major social change in this historically Roman Catholic country.
Hollande’s personal life also provided ammunition to his critics. His relationship with partner Valerie Trierweiler broke up acrimoniously when it emerged he occasionally slipped out of the Elysee Palace in disguise at night and rode by motor scooter to visit a new flame, actress Julie Gayet.
Despite a broad consensus among the French that the private lives of politicians are irrelevant, the breakup prompted countless stories about the extent to which the man in charge of the country was distracted by personal affairs.
Before Trierweiler and Gayet, Hollande spent a quarter of a century and had four children with Segolene Royal, who lost a bid for the presidency to Sarkozy in 2007.
Royal announced her split with Hollande weeks after her defeat but has remained close to him politically, currently as environment minister in his government.
Reporting by Brian Love; Editing by Andrew Callus and Tom Heneghan