By Daniel Flynn
PARIS, March 26 The number of jobless people in France rose for a 10th consecutive month in February to reach its highest level since October 1999, casting a pall over President Nicolas Sarkozy's re-election prospects.
Figures released on Monday by the Labour Ministry showed that the number of registered job seekers in mainland France rose by 6,200 in February to 2.868 million, up 0.2 percent month on month and 6.2 percent on the year.
Sarkozy, who is trying to catch up with his Socialist rival in the polls ahead of a two-round April-May presidential election, welcomed the figures as showing a slowdown in the rate of increase in unemployment.
"This testifies to a tangible economic recovery taking place since we tried to resolve the euro zone crisis," he said early on Monday, before the figures were officially released.
The government raised its growth forecast for this year to 0.7 percent from 0.5 percent last week after the INSEE national statistics office estimated the economy had zero growth in the first quarter, avoiding a recession.
Unemployment is a major electoral issue in France and Sarkozy's government is battling to avert several high-profile industrial closures that would put even more people out of work. The companies his government is trying to help include ferry operator SeaFrance, lingerie producer Lejaby and refineries owned by Switzerland's Petrolplus.
An OpinionWay survey released on Monday showed that 40 percent of employees believed their job was at risk. Yet more than two in three people said they thought the presidential election four weeks from now would have no impact on their job situation according to the survey for labour relations publisher Editions Tissot.
Socialist challenger Francois Hollande, who polls predict will win a crucial May 6 electoral runoff, rarely misses a chance to attack Sarkozy over the country's industrial decline, frequently pointing out that the sector has shed 355,000 jobs during his five years in office.
The plight of the Florange steel mill in eastern France, whose blast furnaces were idled late last year, has come to symbolise the decline.
Sarkozy claimed last month to have clinched a deal with owner ArcelorMittal to restart the furnaces, but the company said it would only do so once the economy recovered.
Sarkozy wants to tackle unemployment by tightening access to benefits so that the jobless can no longer turn down job offers or training after a certain period out of work.
In contrast, Hollande wants to reduce unemployment with a scheme to cut social charges on companies that promise to hire a person aged under 30 while keeping on an employee over 50. His camp estimates the measure would cost 2.3 billion euros ($3.10 billion) over the next five-year presidential term.
The monthly Labour Ministry data is the most frequently reported domestic jobs indicator for France, although it is not prepared according to widely used International Labour Organisation (ILO) standards. (Additional reporting by Brian Love; Editing by Leigh Thomas, Ron Akew and Andrew Osborn)