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French PM denies talk of replacement, says not 'used up'

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault leaves the weekly cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris February 26, 2014. REUTERS/Jacky Nae
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault leaves the weekly cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris February 26, 2014. REUTERS/Jacky Nae

PARIS (Reuters) - France's unpopular Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault brushed off suggestions that he might soon be replaced, telling a newspaper on Sunday he was not "used up and tired" and wanted to see economic reforms through to fruition.

With unemployment stubbornly high, President Francois Hollande and Ayrault are both struggling with approval ratings under 30 percent, prompting media speculation about an imminent reshuffle to refresh the governing team.

The government's lack of support is weighing on its chances ahead of local elections and European parliament in March and May. French presidents often sack unpopular prime ministers or reshuffle cabinets after poor local poll results.

Asked if he was "used up", Ayrault told Le Parisien daily: "Not at all! Do you find me used up and tired? (...) I will not let myself be distracted from my mission by any anecdotes, comments, speculations or fantasies."

Just 24 percent of the French want Ayrault to remain prime minister, a survey by pollster IFOP showed this week, while 49 percent want to see him replaced by his tough-talking Interior Minister Manuel Valls.

Ayrault, who had 26 percent support in a BVA poll in mid-February, said the economy would turn a corner in 2014 thanks to a plan to cut labor costs by 30 billion euros ($41.43 billion) to help shrink the public deficit and restore competitiveness.

Talks between unions and employers on the details of the reform, which Hollande has said would be linked to companies setting hiring targets, have yet to conclude and it remains unclear exactly how the 30 billion euro cut would be financed.

Ayrault said Paris would not seek to offset the cuts by raising VAT sales tax or the CSG social charge paid by nearly all French people, as some fellow Socialists had suggested.

"I'm convinced that people will remember 2014 as the year the country succeeded," he said. "All the reforms we have begun and all the work the French have done will bear fruit."

"This is the time to concentrate, not to let go."

One change Ayrault said he was open to would be to shrink the size of his 34-member cabinet. A February meeting in Paris between his team and the 15-member German cabinet highlighted the large size of the French government.

"When we held the joint Franco-German cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace, one could see there was a slight difference in size," he said. "In Europe, many governments have fewer ministers and they function just fine."

($1 = 0.7240 euros)

(Reporting By Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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