French President Francois Hollande delivers a speech after awarding the Legion of Honour (Legion d'Honneur) and the National Order of Merit (Ordre National du Merite) to Olympic and Paralympic athletes at the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris on December 1, 2016 (Photo: AFP)
France's divided ruling Socialists began accepting candidates on Thursday for a party primary race ahead of next year's presidential election, with incumbent Francois Hollande yet to declare whether he will stand.
Hollande, who has some of the lowest approval ratings for a French president since World War II, is keeping his party in suspense ahead of a planned primary contest to choose its leader in January.
Several of his allies have suggested recently that Hollande might try to skip the selection process, which the 62-year-old head of state is unsure of winning.
Arnaud Montebourg, a leftist former economy minister, submitted his name on Thursday and has insisted the primary should go ahead to unite the fragmented leftwing around a single candidate.
Cancelling the contest would be a "very serious blow against democracy", he argued on Wednesday.
Hollande's popularity has plummeted after five years in power marked by U-turns on major policies, terror attacks, high unemployment and embarrassing revelations about his private life.
If he stands, a new poll on Wednesday predicted he would win just 7.0 percent of votes in the first round of next year's election in April -- strengthening his critics who view him as a lame duck.
Voter surveys currently tip rightwing Republicans party candidate Francois Fillon to win the election, with the far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen seen as his closest challenger.
But with the Socialist candidate still unknown and the role of independents such as 38-year-old ex-minister Emmanuel Macron difficult to predict, analysts urge caution about the forecasts.
Under pressure from his increasingly rebellious prime minister, Manuel Valls, Hollande has said he will clarify his intentions some time this month.
The left-leaning Le Monde newspaper had more harsh words on Thursday for the president, whose leadership was described as "pathetic" by Fillon at the weekend.
Le Monde wrote in an editorial that the Socialists risked tearing themselves apart, further diminishing their chances in next year's presidential and parliamentary elections.
"The person who is most responsable is François Hollande, who has not given a meaning to his time in office, occupied the job with authority or imposed himself as the legitimate candidate for his party," it said.
"The longer he keeps up the uncertainty, the worse the confusion will get," it said.
And there could be more bad news to come.
Hollande's embittered former aide Aquilino Morelle has announced a tell-all book to be published around the same time as the primary about the president's first few years in power.
Its title? "The Abdication".