PARIS - President Jacques Chirac announced today he would not seek re-election next month after 45 years in frontline politics and made a final appeal to French voters to shun extremism.
Chirac, 74, has served as head of state since 1995 and leaves behind a chequered record that consists as much of symbolic gestures as concrete policies.
In a televised address, Chirac, who was a scourge of US policy in Iraq, said he was proud of what he had achieved but would have liked to have modernised France more rapidly.
"At the end of my mandate, the moment will have come for me to serve you otherwise. I will not seek your backing for a new mandate," he said in a sombre, 10-minute speech where he laid out some of the major issues facing France.
"Not for one minute have I ceased to serve this magnificent France. This France which I love as much as I love you," said the final survivor of a political generation that started out in the postwar governments of General Charles de Gaulle.
His decision to stand aside was expected and clears the way for a new generation of leaders born after World War Two.
All the three main contenders to succeed Chirac -- Nicolas Sarkozy of the ruling UMP party, Socialist Segolene Royal and centrist Francois Bayrou -- are in their 50s and all have pledged to break with the politics of the past 25 years.
Chirac, a conservative like Sarkozy, said Sunday was not the moment to endorse any of the contenders, but he made clear that he hoped voters would reject far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who finished second in the 2002 presidential election.
"Never compromise with extremism, racism, anti-Semitism or the rejection of others. In our history, extremism has already nearly ruined us," he said.
Le Pen said Chirac would go down as the worst president in the history of France. "It's a great joy ... I am losing my worst enemy," he told TF1 television after Chirac's address.
Chirac will be remembered for abolishing compulsory military service, playing an important role in ending the Yugoslav civil war in the 1990s and being the first president to acknowledge that French officials assisted in the World War Two Holocaust.
But he will perhaps be best remembered outside France for his fierce opposition to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and embodied the forces scornfully dismissed by former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as "Old Europe".
"President Bush wishes President Chirac all the best as he enters life after politics. The United States and France have been and will remain steadfast partners and allies," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House National Security Council.
Chirac leaves behind a difficult legacy for his successor, with the French economy underachieving, the state heavily indebted, unemployment stubbornly high and social tensions still simmering following rioting in deprived suburbs in 2005.
In that year he suffered a big defeat when French voters rejected the planned European constitution, pushing the European Union into a crisis that the next president will have to defuse.
He referred to the setback on Sunday and said France must continue working for a united Europe.
"We cannot face up to the economic upheavals of the world alone. France must demand a powerful Europe. A political Europe," he said, taking aim at "unbridled liberalism".
But the former Paris mayor, who has long been dogged by accusations of corruption that he has always denied, said France had nothing to fear from globalisation and should continue to play a major role on the world stage.
"France must defend tolerance, dialogue and respect between men and its cultures. What is at stake is peace and security in the world," he said.