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Sarkozy vows to help nation's unemployed

French President Nicolas Sarkozy appeared on prime time TV Monday evening to defend his programme of reforms in the face of sliding poll ratings. He promised to support those whose jobs and earnings have been wiped out by the crisis.


AFP - President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to get France's swelling ranks of unemployed back into work on Monday, in a rare bid to defend his record as he slips in the polls and regional elections loom.

The right-wing president has vaunted measures that helped drag France out of recession last year and has repeatedly insisted that it fared better in the global downturn than Britain and certain other rich countries.

But he has failed so far to reverse the climb in unemployment, which is on track to hit 10 percent this year, and stepped up for Monday's rare televised appearance to clarify his priorities to an increasingly sceptical public.

Questioned on air by the TF1 channel's prime time news programme and then by members of the public, he promised to support those whose jobs and earnings have been wiped out by the crisis.

But he attacked France's generous and costly social welfare and labour system as one of the things holding back the growth of the economy, Europe's third biggest.

"In the weeks and months to come, you will see unemployment fall in our country," he promised.

"The solution is not to multiply benefits of all kind in our country where the level of public spending is the highest in the OECD," a grouping of 30 rich economies, he said.

"The choice of the 35-hour working week (introduced a decade ago) has turned out to be catastrophic in two ways: for salaries, which are not high enough, and for growth."

A poll released ahead of Sarkozy's television appearance showed that jobs was the number one concern in France, followed by pension reform and cost of living.

Sarkozy used Monday's interview also to reiterate his call for responsible behaviour by banks and his government's plan to introduce a tax this year on carbon emissions, which he hopes will extend to the European Union's borders.

Sarkozy has been struggling with near record lows in his approval rating since taking office in 2007, with a poll at the weekend showing that only 38 percent support him, while 61 percent disapprove of his performance.

His right-wing UMP party is now gearing up for regional elections in March, hoping to beat back the opposition Socialists who control 20 of France's 22 regions.

The president, who turns 55 on Thursday, was elected on a promise to reform France and rev up its economy, but voters and the media have complained that his priorities appear muddled.

The country's jobless rate remained stable at 9.1 percent in the third quarter of 2009, but Sarkozy's government has warned that the employment outlook will take some time to improve following last year's recession.

Growth returned in the second quarter of 2009, but joblessness soared in the crisis and a million people are forecast to reach the end of their entitlement to benefits this year, according to unemployment authorities.

"What people are asking us for is not to be able to stay unemployed for three years, but to find a job," Sarkozy said on Monday. "No one will be left behind... But France's problem is to work more, not less."


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