* President says EU deficit limit still within reach in 2013
* UE's Rehn says more austerity not essential for France
(Clarifies quote in fourth paragraph)
PARIS Dec 21 France aims to bring its budget
gap back within European Union limits next year, President
Francois Hollande said, despite new evidence the economy is
close to stagnating.
Many analysts believe Hollande's government will have little
choice but to make additional spending cuts if it is to hit the
3 percent of GDP target, but a top EU official said he did not
consider more belt-tightening essential.
Hollande said the long-standing 3 percent target for the
2013 budget deficit remained in force, despite what would be a
"difficult year" for the economy.
"There's no recession, not in France," he told Europe 1
radio. "But it will be difficult because when we have nearly
zero growth in the first half of the year, unemployment will
French statistics office INSEE estimated late on Thursday
the economy would eke out growth of only 0.1 percent this year,
missing the government's forecast for 0.3 percent and dropping
from 1.7 percent in 2011.
More worryingly, INSEE said the picture would improve only
marginally heading into 2013, estimating growth of 0.1 percent
in both the first and second quarters.
Many economists say that Hollande's government will have
little choice but to make painful budget cuts to meet the target
as growth proves stubbornly weak.
But EU Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn
said France already had a credible budget and that more cuts did
not appear necessary.
"Additional savings measures are not essential," Rehn said
in an interview with Friday's Le Monde newspaper. "Once you have
a credible medium-term budget strategy, including on reforms,
you can have a softer adjustment."
Such reforms would include changes to labour legislation,
which Rehn said France needed to address if it was serious about
tackling unemployment, which INSEE forecast was set to hit a
15-year high of 10.9 percent of the workforce by mid 2013.
The EU commissioner also urged further pension reforms.
Hollande said he expected unemployment would begin to fall
by late 2013.
French employers and trade unions announced overnight that
they had failed to reach an accord on labour market reforms seen
essential to unlocking more growth potential from the euro
zone's second largest economy.
The two sides are set to hold new talks starting Jan. 10,
extending the initial year-end deadline Hollande originally set
for what he said must be an "historic" accord.
"We must not miss this opportunity ... everyone must assume
their responsibilities," he said.
In a brief ray of light for the French economy, business
morale data published by INSEE on Friday showed that sentiment
in the manufacturing sector rose for the second month in a row
(Reporting by Leigh Thomas and Mark John; editing by Vicky
Buffery and John Stonestreet)