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Unpopular French leader vows to 'hold firm' as crisis rages

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

His government has been damaged by a major scandal, his country's economy is stagnant and his popularity at a record low, but French President Francois Hollande has vowed to "hold firm" and not to be "intimidated".

As the one-year anniversary of his election nears, opinion polls show the Socialist leader, perceived by some as indecisive and meek, has become deeply unpopular at a time of economic and social malaise in France.

"I became president at an exceptional time. Exceptional from an economic standpoint -- a long crisis, a recession in Europe, unemployment at a historic level," Hollande told AFP and other news agencies in an interview held days ago but only allowed out now.

He also pointed to France's military intervention in Mali to help push back Islamic extremists, as well as a rise in populism in the country and elsewhere in Europe.

"It is the duty of the president to hold firm and see further ahead, beyond storms of the moment," he added, referring to concern among the French and even members of his Socialist majority over the direction of his policies.

At the time of his election on May 6 last year, Hollande had promised to jump start the economy and create jobs by stimulating growth, but a year on, unemployment has reached record highs and growth is almost non-existent.

Many of his projects have also been met with opposition, such as a landmark gay marriage bill and proposed transparency and anti-fraud reforms following a scandal involving ex-budget minister Jerome Cahuzac, charged with tax fraud.

A survey by polling firm Ifop published in the Journal du Dimanche (JDD) newspaper last weekend showed Hollande is currently more unpopular than any other French president since 1958 when Ifop launched its leader popularity ratings.

Of the nearly 1,900 people questioned, 74 percent said they were unhappy with Hollande, citing his general record and image but also the Cahuzac scandal.

And on Sunday, another Ifop poll published in the JDD revealed more than three-quarters of respondents wanted a national unity government put in place.

Last month, a Socialist member of parliament caused shockwaves after he openly criticised Hollande, calling the current economic situation "very serious".

"When you're president of France... you take stock of the situation and you shift gears," Pascal Cherki said.

Hollande said that while he understood the French people were directing their anger at him as president, he thought accusations that he is indecisive were "totally inappropriate."

"You can criticise my decisions, think that I'm going down the wrong path, say that I didn't go in the right direction, but if there is one thing I'm sure of it is that for one year, I have made major choices for France," he said.

He pointed to measures unveiled in November implementing tax breaks for businesses worth up to 20 billion euros a year to try and address the flagging competitiveness at the heart of the country's economic malaise.

The French leader also highlighted labour law reforms that are being pushed through parliament, aiming to boost jobs and competitiveness by giving more flexibility to employers.

Of his critics, he said that he had "long understood that if I allowed comments to affect me, I could not go forward.

"As president, and I think that was true for all my predecessors, whoever they were, I have set myself a course of action -- never be intimidated, follow one's path. And make sure it's the right one."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130428/unpopular-french-leader-vows-hold-firm-crisis-rages