By John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) - Approval ratings for French President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault hit new lows in December, a poll showed, as left-wing voters showed their discontent over the government's handling of the economy.
Hollande's government has faced criticism over the tactics it used in a two-month battle over the future of ArcelorMittal's Florange steel plant, which unnerved investors in the euro zone's second largest economy and confused France's unions.
His administration is also struggling to stop a hemorrhage of industrial jobs while curbing public spending and raising taxes to help slash debt against the background of a stagnant economy.
The president's backing slipped by four percentage points to 37 percent in December, the worst rating since he became France's first Socialist president in 17 years in May, according to an IFOP poll published for weekly newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche.
Prime Minister Ayrault, who reached an agreement with ArcelorMittal to save jobs late last month, but was criticized over how the process was managed, saw his ratings tumble eight points to 35 percent, dipping below Hollande for the first time.
IFOP's deputy managing director Frederic Dabi said only former president Jacques Chirac had recorded lower ratings at the end of his first year in power with 30 percent in 1995.
"They are paying for the crisis, falling purchasing power, rising unemployment and Florange underscores that," he said. "There is disappointment on the left and extreme venom on the right. Their (government) methods are causing anger."
The IFOP poll showed Hollande and Ayrault losing popularity among far-left voters (down 13 and 17 points respectively) and green voters (a 6 and 11-point fall).
Hollande has repeatedly said public criticism would not divert him from his goal of reviving the economy and has called on voters to judge him in five years.
"As long as the French have problems, they will judge that we haven't achieved results," Labour Minister Michel Sapin told i>Tele television on Sunday.
With unemployment at 14-year highs of 10 percent, there was clear political advantage for Hollande to lock horns with Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal to save the plant.
But the result was at best a no-score-draw, and the tactics used - anti-business rhetoric and the threat of nationalization - could damage his wider reform effort.
While his pugnacious, micro-managing predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy led from the front, Hollande let his ministers lead the fight, creating confusion over who runs industrial policy.
"He is continually making announcements and then going back on them," said one person polled by IFOP.
The survey, based on 1,922 people aged at least 18, was carried out by telephone between December 6 and December 14, Ifop said.
(Reporting By John Irish; Editing by Andrew Heavens)
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