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Hollande denies right turn in economic policy after six months in power

media François Hollande at his conference at the Elysée presidential palace Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

With his standing in opinion polls at a record low and unemployment continuing to climb, French President François Hollande defended his economic policy and stood by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

"A change in the ruling party doesn't mean a change in the realities we are facing,” Hollande told reporters at a huge press conference at the presidential Elysée palace called to mark his fist six months inn office.

He has been obliged to take tough decisions, including a 20 billion rise in taxes, he reminded.

But he claimed not to be worried by his current unpopularity, asking to be judged by results at the end of his mandate.

“I understand my fellow citizens' concerns over the economic crisis,’ Hollande said. “I understand they have their doubts about the politicians' ability to overcome this crisis. But the only question that is worth answering for me is not whether I am getting public support now but what the state of France will be in five years.”

His mission is to bring growth back on track and reduce unemployment, he said.

“I'm asking French people to judge me only on these results."

Last week, the government endorsed the majority of recommendations drawn up by former state railway boss Louis Gallois on competitiveness.

Gallois backed widespread claims, backed by the employers’ union, Medef, that high labour costs are largely responsible for France’s 10 per cent unemployment rate.

France has the 10th highest jobless rate in the European Union and is estimated to have the fifth highest labour costs.

The Gallois plan, which included cutting employers’ social security contributions, has aroused criticism from trade unions and parties to the left of Hollande’s Socialists, putting a strain on the coalition with the Green party, EELV.

Hollande rejected claims that his government has veered to the right and dumped his election promises and insisted that 37 billion euros-worth of austerity measures were needed to clear the country’s budget deficit.

“If debt reduction is recovery's first step, the second one is competitiveness,” he said. “Behind this word, it's simple, there is the word employment … So helping industry to recover is the best way to tell our workers that we're standing next to them.”

Hollande also defended Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who has been slammed in the press for a number of gaffes and a perceived failure to measure up to his office.

Ayrault denied on Wednesday denied that his government was operating an austerity policy.

“It’s a rigorous policy to balance the public accounts, that’s true,” he said. “But you know what austerity is. It’s lowering salaries, pensions, family benefit, it’s thousands of redundancies and that’s not what we’re doing.”

Hard-left former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon dubbed Hollande's performance an "unconditional surrender" to free-market economics in a radio interview on Wednesday morning.

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