PARIS (Reuters) - French industrial output fell more sharply than expected in March, adding to signs that Francois Hollande will inherit a flagging economy when he takes over the country's presidency next week.
Statistics agency INSEE said industrial output fell almost twice as fast as predicted in March, sinking 0.9 percent compared with a Reuters forecast for a decline of 0.5 percent.
The size of the drop was attributable to temporary factors, with energy consumption plunging 14.2 percent on the month after the end of February's cold snap.
However, March's decline in industrial output contributed to an overall 0.1 percent fall over the first three months of the year.
Following on from a sharp drop in consumer spending in the same month, and contrasting with a surprise jump in German industrial output over the same period, the data painted a mixed picture of the euro zone's second largest economy for the start of 2012.
"We are expecting a very light contraction in the economy in the first quarter - of the order of 0.1 to 0.2 percent," said Helene Baudchon, economist at BNP Paribas.
"You can see the glass as half full, that France is holding up given the weak international situation, or you can see it half empty, that the total absence of progress over a year is not good," she added.
After sweeping to victory in a closely fought election on Sunday, the Socialist Hollande will face his first challenge on May 15 as his inauguration as president coincides with the release of first quarter growth data for the French economy.
The figure is widely expected to show gross domestic product declined over the period or at best remained flat, although many believe the euro zone's second largest economy should narrowly avoid tipping into recession, defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth.
French GDP grew 0.4 percent in the final quarter of last year, and the Bank of France said on Thursday it expected the economy to remain flat in the second quarter of this year.
(Reporting By Vicky Buffery; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)