PARIS — François Hollande has always been an unlikely French president, a guy proud to call himself “normal” and who ended up in the Elysee Palace almost by default.
Perhaps the most presidential thing he has done was decide to step down after one term and not run in France’s presidential election next spring.
Hollande steered a terrorized France through its deadliest extremist attacks and left a lasting global legacy with the Paris Agreement to fight climate change. As commander-in-chief, he flexed France’s military muscle from the Mideast to Mali.
Yet he was the least loved French president of modern times, because French voters felt he failed them where it mattered most — their paychecks, taxes and job prospects. He seemed to let go of the wheel when it came to the economy, veering left, then right, and letting divisions in his Socialist party eclipse his economic reforms.
He promised a 75 percent tax on the super-rich, painfully tried to implement it, then abandoned the idea.
He vowed to curb unemployment, yet French joblessness stubbornly stayed around 10 percent.
He pledged to fight austerity, then slashed government spending.
He raised taxes, then cut them.
Hollande championed labor reforms meant to give employers more freedom, but infuriated many who feared the moves undermined workers’ rights, unleashing months of violent protests.
“I served the country with sincerity, with honesty,” Hollande told the nation Thursday night. Expressing concerns about rising populism and acknowledging the risks to the French left of a weak presidential bid, he said: “I have decided not to be a candidate.”
It was a stunning announcement for its emotion and lucidity — but also since it reflected courage for a lifelong politician to admit his failings and walk away.
Hollande, a 62-year-old bachelor with four kids, has been a bit of a paradox all along, someone who wanted to remain ordinary while running a country of 65 million people with nuclear weapons.
From the day he took office in 2012, his hair and glasses drenched in his rainy inaugural parade because he refused a presidential umbrella, it was hard to believe the jovial, approachable Hollande was really in charge.
He even tried to keep his sexual dalliances down-to-earth: When he started an affair with actress Julie Gayet, he rode a motorbike to her flat in a simple white bike helmet — presidential security be damned.
Parisian Marion Laulier blamed the Socialist party for failing to rally around Hollande’s reforms, and for being afraid “to see that France and the world are on the move, and they need to be more realistic and responsible.” She praised Hollande and his courage, but said he “was unable to explain to us all of his decisions, his choices, that’s his mistake.”
At times Hollande proved to be decisive — sending troops to quash extremists in Mali and Central African Republic, and legalizing gay marriage despite resistance. But often, his positions were muddy.
“Some say black, some white and he says gray … but in France, people want a president of authority,” said Fabrice Lhomme, who co-authored an unusually close-up recent book on Hollande titled “A President Shouldn’t Say That…”
Hollande’s path to the presidency was long overshadowed by more charismatic figures.
First Segolene Royal, the mother of his children, ran for the Socialists in the 2007 presidential race because she seemed more electable than party leader Hollande.
Then Dominique Strauss-Kahn was long considered the front-runner for the 2012 presidential race, until a New York sex scandal torpedoed his career — leaving Hollande as the Socialists’ next-best hope.
Hollande won the 2012 election, but some voters chose him simply because he wasn’t Nicolas Sarkozy, the outgoing conservative president whose flashy style and angry rhetoric alienated many.
In deciding to step aside after a troubled four and a half years, Hollande earned praise from voters and rivals alike for his integrity.
“I think this was perhaps the best thing to do to … try to bring the left together,” Paris commuter Vincent Forbin said Friday.
Far right leader Marine Le Pen, hoping to ride Europe’s populist wave to the French presidency, said it was “an act of lucidity on the part of Mr. Hollande, considering the results of his presidential term and the disenchantment and the total absence of confidence from the French people.”
Prime Minister Manuel Valls, a potential Socialist presidential contender, praised Hollande’s “tough, mature, serious choice” and insisted it was too early to rule on his boss’ legacy.
“History will, of course, put back into perspective the action carried on over the past five years. We must defend his record,” Valls said.