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French PM vows action after popularity plunges

Written by: Staff

PARIS, Feb 23 (Reuters) French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin vowed today to do more to address voters' concerns about jobs and bird flu after opinion polls showed a sharp drop in his popularity.

Villepin, who is widely expected to contest the 2007 presidential election, called for calm after avian flu was discovered in two dead wild ducks in France and defended a youth job plan that has provoked street protests.

The conservative prime minister's popularity dropped 11 points in the past month to 36 percent, according to a poll published yesterday by CSA research group. A survey published on Sunday also showed a sharp decline in support for Villepin.

''When you have a difficult situation...people want to see results,'' Villepin told Canal Plus television in an interview.

''They say these results aren't enough, and they are right.

That's why we want to do more.'' Villepin's popularity surged in the first few months after he was appointed last May by his mentor and ally, President Jacques Chirac.

It held steady even when rioting erupted last November among disillusioned young people in city suburbs.

But his efforts to reduce unemployment and boost low economic growth have not convinced voters that he has any long-term solutions to France's main problems.

Villepin's popularity among young people fell by 22 points to 29 percent, the CSA poll showed.

Pollsters said the drop was a reaction to his plan to create a job contract allowing firms to hire people aged under 26 for a two-year trial period before offering them a permanent job.

Villepin, 52, says the job contract will encourage companies to hire young people but critics say it will increase job insecurity by allowing employers to fire workers at will.

The government easily survived a censure vote put forward by the opposition Socialists in parliament this week over the jobs plan, and marches by students and trade unions this month failed to win the support organisers had hoped for.

Students were planning new protests over the youth job plan in Paris on Thursday.

Villepin's success in creating jobs could be key to his chances in the 2007 presidential race, in which he is likely to face a major challenge to be the centre-right's candidate from tough-talking Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

The Socialists are in disarray but hope that discontent over economic and social problems will give them a boost in time for the parliamentary and presidential elections next year.

Reuters MP GC2146

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