PARIS (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande wavered on Thursday over his politically sensitive pledge to bring unemployment down by the end of the year, saying it would take as long as necessary.
The unpopular Socialist leader has staked his credibility on turning around the euro zone's second-biggest economy and lowering the jobless rate, which now stands at 10.9 percent.
"It will be a battle, it's a battle that we have taken on, fought month by month," Hollande said during a visit to a Paris suburb, hours before October jobless claims were due to be published. "We will have to work on it relentlessly and it will take as much time as necessary."
Pressed later by journalists on whether his year-end deadline still stood, Hollande said "yes" without elaborating. An aide said the pledge was more a question of stabilizing unemployment by the end of the year and then getting it lower.
The 10.9 percent unemployment rate is close to the all-time high of 11.2 percent set in 1997. As monthly jobless claims have hit record after record, Hollande's popularity has fallen to lows never seen before for a president in France's 55-year-old Fifth Republic.
"Politicians need to think first before they talk nonsense, even if it doesn't suit the public," said jobseeker Djamel Meddah, who used to work at an ArcelorMittal steel plant that Hollande was unable to save despite a promise to do his utmost.
"They shouldn't announce things for political reasons to make people think things will get better. Everyone can see France is in a difficult situation," Meddah told Reuters outside a Paris jobs agency.
As Hollande's aides rushed to dispel confusion over his promise, fellow Socialists downplayed the importance of sticking to a specific timetable.
"We shouldn't put constraints on ourselves to get unemployment on a downward trend by such-and-such day, week or month," Senate President Jean-Pierre Bel told journalists.
Hollande has struggled to convince voters and France's EU partners that he can steer the economy towards recovery while improving strained finances. He has already had to abandon plans to bring the public deficit in line with EU limits this year.
Rises in the monthly jobless claims have become smaller recently, but reports of corporate layoffs still dominate the headlines. That is feeding concern about unemployment, which in turn is weighing on consumer confidence, official data showed on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Natalie Huet and Leigh Thomas; Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Tom Heneghan, Larry King)