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French leader struggles with winter of discontent

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

French leader Francois Hollande, the country's most unpopular president on record, was battling Tuesday to contain a rising tide of social discontent amid rumours of an imminent cabinet reshuffle.

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 goods vehicles.

The protests have led to the measure being temporarily suspended, adding to the sense of a government drifting impotently from one crisis to another, dogged by headlines of record unemployment, voter dissatisfaction and popular anger over factory closures.

Opinion polls suggest two thirds of voters want Hollande to shake up his cabinet 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 who was due to have lunch with Hollande on Tuesday, and Manuel Valls, the 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 beleaguered leader also suffered the humiliation of being booed at Remembrance Day celebrations to pay homage to the millions killed during World War I with protesters shouting at him to step down. The government has blamed activists of the far-right National Front (FN) for the jeering.

'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.

Critics argue the extra half-day will add to the teachers' workload and cause problems for working parents who will have to make new arrangements to take the children to school.

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 3 billion euros in tax increases for next year to rein in its budget deficit following pressure from Brussels.

France, the eurozone's second-biggest economy, exited recession with 0.5 percent growth in the second quarter, but is still limping.

In some good news for Hollande, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development said Tuesday that the country's growth was in an upward phase. It said annual growth in France would be around 0.3 percent this year and go up to 0.8 percent in 2014 -- although that is fractionally lower than the 0.9 percent expansion the government is counting on.

Unemployment is at a record high and French companies are seen as being saddled by poor competitiveness and high production costs.

Nowhere has the national feeling of despondency been laid bare as much as in the northwestern region of Brittany, where locals have staged huge protests against tax increases and job cuts, even destroying the radars set up to help collect the mooted environmental levy on trucks.

The issue of youth unemployment -- a pressing problem not just for France but for Europe as a whole -- is being discussed by Hollande and other heads of state from the European Union in Paris on Tuesday.

According to the European Commission's latest statistics, the EU-wide youth joblessness rate stands at 23.5 percent. A total of 7.5 million aged 15-24 are neither 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 or Spain.

EU members have pledged 12 billion euros ($16 billion) over the next two years while the European Investment Bank and European Social Fund plan to spend similar amounts.

Among the EU initiatives launched to tackle the problem is a "youth guarantee" scheme, whereby young people are to be given a job opportunity, further education or training within four months of leaving school.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/131112/french-leader-struggles-winter-discontent