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French leader hits back as winter of discontent looms

French president Francois Hollande waits to greet dignitaries for a European Union leaders conference dedicated to tackling youth unemployment, on November 12, 2013, at the Elysee Palace in Paris
French president Francois Hollande waits to greet dignitaries for a European Union leaders conference dedicated to tackling youth unemployment, on November 12, 2013, at the Elysee Palace in Paris

French President Francois Hollande hit back at his critics Tuesday as the country's most unpopular president on record battled to contain a rising tide of social discontent amid rumours of an imminent cabinet reshuffle.

Speaking after talks with fellow European leaders on youth unemployment, Hollande robustly denounced the protestors who had subjected him to an unprecedented chorus of boos during Monday's sombre commemorations for France's dead in two World Wars and other conflicts.

"These outrages, these insults issued during this ceremony dishonour those who made them," Hollande said before defending the spending cuts he has been forced to make under pressure from the European Union.

"For the last 18 months, the efforts I have asked of the French people have been to put the public accounts, which were in a mess, in order, to strengthen our competitiveness and improve training and education," he said.

"These efforts have been difficult but they are unavoidable and if I had not undertaken them, where would our country be today?"

The Socialist head of state faces more unrest this week with fresh protests against government policies scheduled by teachers and self-employed tradespeople in the wake of recent violent demonstrations against a proposed new tax on heavy vehicles.

The protests, which have involved widespread vandalism of radar posts designed to monitor traffic and enforce the tax, have led to it being temporarily suspended, adding to the sense of a government drifting impotently from one crisis to another.

Opinion polls suggest two-thirds of voters want Hollande to shake up his government by sacking Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who is increasingly seen as incapable of keeping a fractious cabinet in line.

Among those tipped as possible replacements for Ayrault are Martine Aubry, the Socialist mayor of Lille, and Manuel Valls, the hardline but popular interior minister who has been keeping a conspicuously low profile over recent weeks.

A poll published on Monday showed that only 21 percent of the French approved of Hollande's policies, against 24 percent in October, making him the most disliked president since the country embraced a presidential system more than 50 years ago.

The government has blamed activists of the far-right National Front (FN) for the jeering at Monday's Remembrance Day ceremony.

'Asphyxiating' tax rises

In a further setback for the government, primary school teachers started a fresh round of strikes on Tuesday to protest plans to extend their working week by half a day to four and a half days from September this year.

France's Professional Union of Artisans, which represents small businesses and traders ranging from bakers to plumbers and market stallholders, is to launch a wave of protests from Wednesday. Jean-Pierre Crouzet, the head of the union, said his members were being "asphyxiated" by new taxes, estimated at 1.1 billion euros ($1.4 billion) this year.

The government has announced about three billion euros in tax increases for next year to rein in its budget deficit following pressure from Brussels.

France exited recession with 0.5 percent growth in the second quarter of the year, but the eurozone's second-biggest economy is still coughing and spluttering.

In some rare good news for Hollande, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development said Tuesday that growth would accelerate to 0.8 percent next year -- although that is fractionally lower than the 0.9 percent expansion the government is counting on.

The issue of youth unemployment is particularly pressing, not just for France but for Europe as a whole.

According to the European Commission's latest statistics, the EU-wide youth jobless rate stands at 23.5 percent. A total of 7.5 million aged 15-24 are not in work, education or training.

The sting of the crisis is felt differently across the bloc. The youth unemployment rate is pinned down at 7.7 percent in Europe's healthiest economy, Germany, but soaring past 50 percent in debt-crippled southern countries such as Greece and Spain.

EU members have pledged 12 billion euros over the next two years to fight the problem, while the European Investment Bank and European Social Fund plan to spend similar amounts as part of a programme reviewed at Tuesday's talks.

Among the EU initiatives is a "youth guarantee" scheme, which will provide funding to ensure young people are given a job opportunity, further education or training within four months of leaving school.

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