Hollande warns "disappointing" EU at risk of unravelling

PARIS Fri May 9, 2014 5:28am EDT

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PARIS May 9 (Reuters) - President Francois Hollande on Friday urged French voters in this month's European Parliament elections to reject Eurosceptic parties, warning that they wanted to reverse decades of European integration.

In a column in Le Monde daily, he condemned protectionist, anti-euro policies of the far-right National Front of Marine Le Pen, which polls show emerging as France's largest party in the May 25 election amid widespread voter apathy.

"As a result of the economic crisis, certain forces in France and other countries are trying to unravel (the EU) by betting on disappointment and despondency and digging up fears," the Socialist leader wrote. "(But) the end of the euro would mean implacable austerity, the end of financial solidarity and a currency abandoned to the whim of speculators."

Hollande stressed that France still wanted to defend its key industries, regulate trade and guard against wage competition from low-cost rivals, but added: "How can a country that exports more than a quarter of its output run the risk of isolation?"

Le Pen called earlier this month for fellow Eurosceptics to unite in the new European Parliament and use their weight to block any further EU integration.

Support for the EU has crumbled in co-founding member state France in recent years. A survey by pollster CSA this month showed just 51 percent of the French backed EU membership, down from 67 percent a decade ago.

The National Front is among a handful of Eurosceptic parties in the 28-nation EU forecast to perform better than mainstream centrist peers on May 25, mining the disenchantment of working classes hardest hit by globalisation and financial austerity.

Hollande did not advance any new EU project in the article. But he cited recent deals on EU banking union and a pan-EU tax on financial transactions to show the bloc was seeking to deal with the root causes of the 2009 sovereign debt crisis from which its economies are only now recovering.

However, he acknowledged that France and other countries had failed to tackle high youth unemployment and called on voters to use the election to make their voice heard on EU policy.

"The Union is disappointing ... For the first time, voters, with their ballot, will designate the future president of the European Commission. How many of them know that at the moment?"

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A survey by pollster IFOP this week put the National Front at 24 percent of the vote, with the opposition UMP conservatives on 22.5 percent and Hollande's Socialists on just 18 percent. Some two-thirds of voters are expected to abstain.

French officials have in recent weeks stepped up calls for a weaker euro which they see as boosting exports and stimulating growth and jobs in the bloc.

In an interview with Reuters, former Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker, the centre-right candidate for European Commission president, said Paris should stop blaming its own problems on the single currency.

Hollande's own record unpopularity is likely to weigh on the election prospects of his party, which is still licking its wounds from a trouncing in March's town hall elections, while opponents have criticised his handling of the Ukraine crisis.

Mainstream UMP conservatives have notably accused him of being inactive and pointed to former president Nicolas Sarkozy's decision at the height of a previous stand-off with Russia over Georgia in 2008 to fly to Moscow for talks with Vladimir Putin.

UMP backers have called on Sarkozy - in retirement since his 2012 election defeat by Hollande but widely tipped to be eyeing a return to politics - to enter the EU election fray in a bid to win back conservative voters from the FN. (Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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