PARIS French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has slipped below a 50 percent approval rating for the first time since he was nominated in a March cabinet reshuffle, a poll showed on Sunday, as President Francois Hollande remained deeply unpopular.
Valls, who replaced ex-PM Jean-Marc Ayrault after the ruling Socialists suffered a bruising defeat in local elections, has presided over an economic policy shift which centered around hefty payroll tax cuts for companies meant to improve their competitiveness. Left-wing unions strongly opposed the move.
Valls, formerly a tough-talking interior minister, remains the most popular of Hollande's cabinet, but his support with the public is falling quickly, the survey by pollster Ifop in weekly newspaper JDD showed.
His approval score dropped by 6 percentage points since the start of July after a 5-point fall during the previous month, leaving him with an overall rating of 45 percent - the lowest since he took office.
Hollande's score was stuck at 18 percent, confirming him as the most unpopular French president since World War Two as unemployment remained stuck near a record high and France's economic recovery lagged behind European peers.
Valls' support level had declined most sharply among center-right voters, with a 19 percent decline in one month, followed by far-left voters, with 13 percent, the poll showed.
The prime minister has staked his credibility on a reform package designed to lower company labor costs in exchange for their commitment to hiring targets, but the trade-off has proven hard to achieve given opposition from unions and companies.
On Sunday, during a commemoration for the 72nd anniversary of the rounding up of French Jews by police collaborating with Nazi occupiers during World War Two, he defended a controversial move to ban a planned pro-Palestinian protest in Paris on Saturday.
"France will not allow provocateurs to fan any sort of conflict between communities," Valls said.
Protesters gathered despite the ban and clashes broke out with police, who fired teargas and stun grenades after being pelted with paving stones and glass bottles.
The poll was conducted on July 18-19 and 973 people aged 18 over were questioned by telephone.
(Reporting By Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)