M. Continuo

France's Hollande says will finish mandate, rejects 'anti-poor' jibe

By Julien Ponthus

NEWPORT Wales (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande said on Friday he would stay in office until the end of his mandate in 2017 despite his record low opinion poll ratings, and defended himself vigorously against a suggestion he disliked the poor.

Hollande is on the defensive as his approval ratings hit ever lower levels in a stalling economy, dissent builds within his Socialist Party, and critics raise the possibility of calling a general election.

"I was elected for five years by the French people. I am halfway through my mandate," he told a news conference after a NATO summit.

"There is no poll, as difficult as it may be... that can interrupt the mandate the people have given to the president of the Republic," he said when asked whether he might bring an early end to his own presidency given the fragile state of the economy, high unemployment and his unpopularity.

Further cementing his status as France's least popular post-war president, Hollande's approval rating hit a record low of 13 percent in August, according to a poll published on Thursday.

A poll published on Friday by Ifop for Le Figaro newspaper found that Hollande, who took power in 2012, would lose a second-round head-to-head presidential vote to extreme-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

"My duty is not to yield in the face of I don't know what pressure," Hollande told journalists. "It's to resolve the big questions facing France, and I won't stray from my responsibility."

France's economy has seen zero growth so far this year and unemployment has reached record levels, standing at 10.2 percent in the second quarter.

Hollande has reshuffled his government twice since May, and this week, after the poll was taken, his ex-partner published a book that said he made fun of poor people in private.

In her book, Valerie Trierweiler described the Socialist leader as being dismissive of the poor.

"He presented himself as a man who disliked the rich," said Trierweiler, a journalist. "In reality, the president doesn't like the poor. In private, this man -- the left-winger -- calls them 'the toothless' and is so pleased at how funny he is."

Hollande brushed aside a question about whether the book brought the French presidency into disrepute, but went out of his way to say he was entirely devoted to helping the poor.

"I won't allow to be brought into question something I have stood for all my life... and notably the human relationship I have with the weakest, the most modest, the humblest, the poorest, because I am here to serve them and they are my reason for existence," he said.

The president ended his seven-year relationship with the 49-year old Trierweiler after his affair with an actress came to light in January.

Her book, which shot to the top of the Amazon.fr French bestseller list this week and is already out of stock in many bookstores, is further undermining his image, already hurt by broken promises to turn around joblessness and the stagnating economy.

In a further setback, Hollande on Thursday accepted the resignation of Thomas Thevenoud, a junior minister for trade appointed just 10 days ago in the second reshuffle of 2014. Thevenoud has said that he neglected to file a tax return for several years, but has since put his tax situation in order and hopes to remain a member of parliament.

The latest reshuffle came after left-wing members openly called into question Hollande's deficit-cutting strategy.

Eager to contain growing dissent in the ruling Socialist Party, Hollande's prime minister, Manuel Valls, has called a confidence vote in parliament for Sept. 16.

(Writing by Leigh Thomas; Editing by Andrew Callus and Dominic Evans)