Mr Delors, outgoing President of the European Commission, gave both personal and professional reasons as he read from a prepared statement during a television interview. Mr Delors, the favourite in opinion polls over the past few weeks, had been expectedto stand for the opposition Socialist Party.
Noting that he would soon be 70, he said: "I have decided not to be a candidate". He looked forward to a time of "reflection, not action".
Politically, he spoke of the difficulties of another period of "cohabitation" - a president from one camp and a government from another. "I would have the impression of having lied to the French," he said. Cohabitation would mean proposing "a programme which could not be put into practice".
France is now living through such a period, with a Socialist president and a conservative government. Mr Delors' decision is a boon for the right, now virtually assured of taking the Elysee Palace when Francois Mitterrand steps down. It is a catastrophe for the left, which had put all its hopes in Mr Delors.
Nobody in the Socialist Party, routed in general elections last year, has Mr Delors' stature. No other Socialist could expect to pick up the votes from the centre and even the right that he might have attracted.
A month ago, Mr Delors published a book on his views and gave a series of interviews, convincing many commentators that he was sure to stand. He soared in the opinion polls, displacing Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist Prime Minister, who had topped all polls for more than a year.
The focus in the presidential battle now returns to the two Gaullist contenders, Mr Balladur and Jacques Chirac, the mayor of Paris and former prime minister.
The prospect now is for a second round of elections on 7 May in which only right-wing candidates will stand. The first round on 23 April will eliminate the also-rans.
Mr Delors' decision may not be the last surprise in this presidential election campaign. With Mr Mitterrand, 78, seriously ill with cancer, there has been persistent speculation that he might step down before his mandate ends next May.
Mr Delors, is reported to have been under pressure from his family to retire once he leaves the EU job next month.
The journalist interviewing Mr Delors said Jack Lang, former Culture Minister, and another possible Socialist candidate, would be sad at Mr Delors' decision. "I am a little sad too," said Mr Delors.
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