PARIS (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande's approval rating slipped to 37 percent in February as pessimism about the economy overtook satisfaction with his military intervention against Islamist rebels in Mali, a poll showed on Sunday.

The IFOP survey published in weekly paper JDD showed that Hollande's backing had dropped by one percentage point since the previous month, giving him the same popularity rate as that of Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

Dissatisfaction with the Socialist president was strongest among small business owners, 73 percent of whom were unhappy; blue-collar workers, with 70 percent; and private sector workers, with 66 percent, the pollster said.

The findings show negative views on Hollande's economic policies overshadowing feelings that he displayed strong leadership last month in sending French troops to Mali to help its government push back an offensive by Islamist rebels.

Grim economic news has dogged him since the start of 2013 as factory closures kept up pace, unemployment hovered near 15 percent and the national auditor, La Cour des Comptes, published a report highlighting lax management of state funds.

Meanwhile, the government has yet to find a buyer for the Petit-Couronne oil refinery in Normandy, which is set to close in April, and strife has worsened at Peugeot PSA's Aulnay plant, which is set to close in 2014.

The government also said for the first time that it was unlikely to bring the public deficit down to 3 percent of GDP by the end of 2013 in line with European targets, acknowledging doubts expressed by independent economists.

Cour des Comptes chief Didier Migaud said politicians' unwillingness to strip popular programs and attack niches in government was feeding "addiction" to public spending - which is higher in France as a percentage of GDP than any Western country aside from Denmark.

However, Migaud said the European Commission should allow for cyclical variations in the way it measures how countries have performed with regard to deficit targets, as EU-wide austerity policies had crimped activity.

"It's clear that we cannot think without taking the economic context into consideration," he told Europe 1 radio. "You see that growth is weak. Should we be taking that into consideration? Probably."

(Reporting by Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Mark Heinrich)




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