Hollande bids to deflect glare from private life to reforms
PARIS (Reuters) - President Francois Hollande will aim at a news conference on Tuesday to set out plans to revive the weak French economy and deflect questions about his private life after allegations surfaced of a secret love affair with an actress.
His New Year's encounter with journalists in his Elysee Palace will be the French leader's first public appearance since a celebrity magazine on Friday published photos it said showed Hollande making a nocturnal visit to a lover.
His office complained of breach of privacy but did not issue a denial. The saga took a surprise new turn on Sunday when it emerged that his long-term partner, Valerie Trierweiler, had been admitted to hospital in a state of shock.
"This major political event must remain a major political event," David Assouline, spokesman for Hollande's Socialist party, said of the 4:30 p.m. (10.30 a.m. ET) news conference, an annual setpiece which could go on as long as two hours.
Hollande plans to use the event to detail a proposed "responsibility pact" with business in which firms will be offered tax cuts and less red tape in return for hiring commitments aimed at reducing 12 percent unemployment.
But chances of the agenda being hijacked by the alleged affair are high. A similar event staged by predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy after his 2007 divorce was dominated by curiosity over his ties to singer Carla Bruni, whom he subsequently wed.
While a poll at the weekend showed four-fifths of French voters considered the matter a private affair for Hollande and his family, the news of former journalist Trierweiler's admission to hospital prompted critics to break their silence.
"This has been disastrous for the image of the institution of the presidency," said Jean-François Cope, head of the opposition UMP conservatives.
REFORM WINDOW TIGHT
Although France does not have an official First lady title, Trierweiler has her own office in the Elysee, a chauffeur and adviser, and accompanies Hollande on visits. Many pundits say it is legitimate now to question what her actual status is.
"She knows it must be cleared up because the debate has turned political," Frederic Gerschel, a reporter for the Le Parisien daily, told RTL radio after speaking to Trierweiler.
Her office said she would remain in hospital for the time being. "She needs to recover after the shock she suffered. She needs peace and quiet," an aide said.
Worries are growing in the euro zone that France, its second largest economy, will hold back a nascent recovery - fears borne out by December manufacturing data that showed a strong pick-up in most countries except France.
France's blue-chip stock index CAC 40 - home of bellwethers such as Sanofi, L'Oreal and Total - is down 0.8 percent, the worst performance among European bourses in 2014.
Analysts are for now skeptical about whether Hollande is really ready to act on his acknowledgement that France's high public spending and taxation is restraining the economy and the creation of new jobs.
They point to local French elections in May and European Parliament polls two months later as limiting his room for maneuver on painful measures to cut public spending, currently around 57 percent of output.
(Additional reporting by Blaise Robinson and Emmanuel Jarry, editing by Mark Heinrich)
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