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France's Francois Hollande vows to strengthen nation's economy

November 13, 2012|By Kim Willsher and Devorah Lauter

PARIS – French President Francois Hollande attempted to halt his diving popularity by portraying himself Tuesday as a man on a mission to combat France's lack of competitiveness, halt soaring unemployment and slash public spending.

He also announced that France would be the first Western power to recognize the newly formed Syrian opposition coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. He said the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces would be a “future government of a democratic Syria ... allowing it to bring an end to the regime of [President] Bashar al-Assad.”

The move is similar to France's early recognition of Libyan rebels as the rightful representatives of their country before they overthrew strongman Moammar Kadafi last year.

Economic growth, competitiveness and jobs were Hollande's three principal themes as he used his first major news conference at home to sum up his first six months in power and his plans for the next 4 1/2 years.

“Decline is not our destiny,” said Hollande, whose popularity rating has plunged almost 20 points since his inauguration in May as he has failed to convince voters he is capable of resolving the France's economic crisis. “I can understand the doubts that have been expressed, but the only valid question in my view is not the state of public opinion today but the state of France in five years.”

Hollande reiterated his determination to reduce the national deficit to 3% of gross domestic product during his administration. He also pledged to revive the s stagnant economy and to reverse a rising jobless rate that is now about 10%, or more than 3 million people.

“All my strategy, all my politics are aimed at combating unemployment. I'm not the first French president to promise this, and the French are understandably skeptical,” said Hollande, who appeared serious but upbeat and even joked occasionally during the more than two-hour session. “Everything has been said, but not everything has been done. Unemployment touches everyone ... every generation, every family. That is the priority of my term in office. It's my responsibility.”

Hollande also confirmed his intention to reform banks by splitting their retail and investment activities and to enforce public-spending cuts of about $15.25-billion a year.

“We should be capable of doing better by spending less,” he said. “France must bring its public finances into order ... but also accompany this adjustment by a determination for growth.”

Asked about reportedly touchy relations with Berlin, Hollande said that he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel “have a common responsibility to move Europe forward. Nothing must be done to weaken this relationship. We have our difficulties, but we find compromises to find a way that is best for Europe."

Hollande also said he would seek a debate on the possible legalization of same-sex marriage so that “all beliefs are heard and respected.”

“There will be an evolution of our rights founded on equality,” he said. “It will also be a bill of liberty, and I don't want it to become a bill of division.”

He acknowledged his plunging approval ratings but said their effect on him was limited and that they did not “touch me.”

“Do I commission opinion polls? No. Do I determine things according to the opinion polls? No,” he said. “I have known much harder situations.... Being president is the best response to my detractors.”

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