By Richard Lough
PARIS (Reuters) - President Francois Hollande said on Thursday he would not let France's image deteriorate "over the coming months or coming years", his clearest indication yet that he intends to run for a second term in office next year.
In an hour-long speech on "democracy and terrorism", Hollande, a Socialist, took a swipe at his right-wing opponents, saying their hardline reactions to a wave of militant attacks demonstrated an intent to destroy France's social model.
"I won't let the image of France, the influence of France, deteriorate over the coming months or coming years," said Hollande, who opinion polls show is the most unpopular French leader of modern times.
Hollande has come under attack from right-wing opponents, in particular former president Nicolas Sarkozy, over his track record on security. More than 230 people have been killed in militant Islamist attacks on French soil since January 2015.
Sarkozy, who announced last month his candidacy for the April 2017 presidential poll, has said France needs to be "merciless" in its response to the attacks and that there is no place for "legal niceties" in the fight against terrorism.
Without mentioning Sarkozy by name, Hollande said: "Constitutional principles are not legal niceties."
"Is the freedom to come and go a legal nicety? Is freedom of expression a legal nicety? Is freedom to worship a legal nicety? Is being presumed innocent - something that's useful when defending one's self - a legal nicety?" Hollande said at the left-wing Jean Jaures Foundation, drawing warm applause.
Hollande, who defeated Sarkozy in the 2012 presidential race, was speaking on Thursday amid lingering security fears and this summer's debacle over a burkini ban, a saga which encapsulated secular France's difficulties responding to the threat posed by homegrown jihadists and foreign militants.
Worryingly for Hollande, an opinion poll published by Elabe on Wednesday showed almost nine in 10 voters did not want the president to seek a second five-year term.
Further underlining the uphill battle Hollande would face in winning re-election, respondents were damning in their assessment of his performance on the two key themes set to dominate the campaign: security and the economy.
More than two thirds of respondents held a negative view of the president's fight against terrorism while 86 percent viewed his handling of the economy unfavorably amid stubbornly high unemployment.
With seven months to go until the election's first round, the fractures within the Socialist Party are deepening and the list of left-wing candidates to replace Hollande is growing.
Hollande's economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, a 38-year-old investment banker whose place in the government had become increasingly awkward after he repeatedly criticized left-wing totems such as the 35-hour working week, resigned last week, clearing the way for an anticipated presidential bid.
A poll this week showed Macron winning more votes than Hollande in the first round of the election.
Hollande's conservative opponents were quick to hit back at the president after his speech.
"The French people were waiting for a commander-in-chief ... they got a mediocre party leader," Eric Ciotti, a close ally of Sarkozy told iTele.
(Additional reporting by John Irish, Elizabeth Pineau and Jean-Baptiste vey; Editing by John Irish and Gareth Jones)