Jobless figures up as French election nears

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By GREG KELLER, Associated Press

PARIS (AP) — France's bleak economic outlook has returned to the forefront of the country's presidential campaign after new figures Friday showed the number of job seekers rose for the 11th consecutive month in March.

Francois Hollande — the Socialist front-runner in the May 6 runoff election — was quick to seize on the new data from the Labor Ministry showing the number of job seekers rose 0.6 percent last month to 2.88 million.

In an interview on French radio RTL on Friday, Hollande called job creation "the key issue" of the campaign that pits him against President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Last month French statistical body INSEE said the unemployment rate in France rose to 9.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011, the most recent period for which it has figures.

"I won't do like the incumbent in 2007 and say I'll cut unemployment to 5 percent and then finish my term with unemployment at 10 percent as it is now," Holland said, in a swipe at Sarkozy.

Hollande, who polls give every chance of making Sarkozy the first French president in over three decades to lose his re-election bid, said he would aim to boost France's anemic economic growth by supporting small and medium enterprises and mobilizing French savers' significant financial resources to benefit industry.

Sarkozy has blamed France's stubbornly high unemployment on the financial sovereign debt crisis that has swept up Europe.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon sought to defend the president's record. In an interview published Friday in French daily Les Echos, Fillon said France's "the level of unemployment is rather lower than in other European countries."

But Fillon said any improvement in job creation would not occur before the second half of the year, or possibly the end of 2012.

A bankruptcy filing by France's second-largest private security firm earlier this week, with the potential loss of 5,000 jobs, has highlighted the issue of unemployment.

Polls say unemployment is the number one concern of voters, but it has fallen by the campaign wayside as Sarkozy has focused more of his rhetoric on issues of immigration and French identity in a bid to attract support from voters who sided with far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the election's first round.

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