France's Hollande says will oppose lay-offs after vote

By Daniel Flynn | April 28, 2012 9:05 PM IST

France's Socialist presidential frontrunner Francois Hollande said on Saturday he was expecting a wave of lay-offs to follow next weekend's election, but pledged his government would not stand idly by as companies dismissed their workers.

Hollande is on track to win the May 6 runoff against President Nicolas Sarkozy, due largely to the conservative leader's failure to meet promises to lower stubbornly high unemployment in the euro zone's second largest economy.

Sarkozy, who would become the first French president to lose a re-election bid in more than 30 years, received a fresh blow on Thursday when the jobless rate hit nearly 3 million, its highest level since September 1999.

Hollande said labour leaders were warning that companies were preparing a round of job cuts after the end of the presidential campaign, during which Sarkozy has done everything in his power to avoid high profile industrial closures.

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"The unions are aware of this. Decisions are being prepared which have been postponed," Hollande told Le Parisien newspaper in an interview. "It is not our victory which will trigger redundancy plans after May 6."

The prospect of a Socialist winning control of France for the first time since Francois Mitterrand left office in 1995 has irked some investors, helping to widen the spread of French bond yields to benchmark German Bunds.

Hollande's vow to renegotiate a German-inspired EU budget discipline pact to introduce a focus on growth has sown fears of a damaging rift at the heart of Europe.

However, Berlin has played down any differences and increasingly emphasised the need for an EU strategy on growth and jobs in the face of rising opposition within Europe to austerity in recent weeks.

Hollande warned business leaders he would not stand by as they turned workers onto the streets.

"We must tell these companies that we will not accept this without reacting," he told Le Parisien.

LE PEN TO SHAKE UP PARLIAMENT

Sarkozy, whose brash personal style has alienated many conservative voters, became the first incumbent to finish second in a presidential first round vote last week, when Hollande beat him 28.6 percent to 27.2.

National Front leader Marine Le Pen shocked France by finishing third with 18 percent, the far-right party's best showing at a national election.

In an interview with the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, Le Pen predicted Sarkozy's UMP party would crumble if he loses next weekend's runoff, opening the door for the National Front to pick up seats in June's parliamentary elections.

The far-right party has not held a legislative seat since 1986, when it won 35 deputies during a brief experiment with proportional representation.

"There will be a political reconstruction," Le Pen said. "If we get into parliament we will shake everything up. The habits, the dishonourable behaviour, the complicities ... In parliament, my voice will be heard and I hope not to arrive there alone."

Hollande has blamed Sarkozy's fiery anti-immigrant rhetoric for fostering the far-right, which flourished in high unemployment areas.

"The left's real responsibility is not convincing ordinary voters - workers, employees, rural people, even the young - that it was useful to vote for us," he told Le Parisien. "It is to these voters who feel down trodden, who have suffered a lot in the crisis, that I must appeal as a candidate and as president."

Hollande has already announced plans to tax income over one million euros at 75 percent and increase taxes on large corporations, particularly banks. He told the newspaper he would press ahead with a small one-off increase in France's minimum wage, one of the most generous in Europe.

While Sarkozy blames France's declining competitiveness versus its main trade partner Germany on a steady rise in French wages since 2000, the Socialists say other factors are more decisive, such as technological innovation, the speed and flexibility of production processes and quality of goods.

Hollande warned that Sarkozy would be free to impose even tougher austerity measures, meaning higher taxes on consumers, if he won the May 6 vote because he would not be seeking reelection after a second term.

With the tone of the campaign becoming increasingly bitter in recent days, as both Sarkozy and Hollande seek to appeal to far-right voters, the Socialist said a head-to-head debate on Wednesday between the two men was likely to be tough.

"To judge by the tone and content of the campaign, the debate will be rough. I am ready," he said.

(Reporting By Daniel Flynn)

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