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By Nicholas Vinocur
Tue May 29, 2012 4:29pm EDT
PARIS (Reuters) - French unions pressed President Francois Hollande at the start of labor talks on Tuesday to prove his job-saving mettle by handing his Socialist cabinet a list of looming company shutdowns that are threatening tens of thousands of jobs.
Hollande, who came to power this month against a grim economic backdrop, has promised to reverse rising unemployment and shore up the struggling manufacturing sector, partly by pumping investment into small and medium businesses.
He promised on Tuesday to honor a campaign pledge to raise the minimum wage but said this would be tempered by the need to ensure firms were not saddled with unaffordable wage bills.
As Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault held his first talks with union leaders to discuss the job situation ahead of a July summit on social issues, Hollande's immediate challenge was to respond to the warnings about layoffs in the pipeline.
Hardline union CGT named 46 companies it said were planning to shut production sites in a list published in French media that showed about 90,000 jobs threatened directly or indirectly.
Firms planning to close factories ranged from carmakers PSA Peugeot Citron and General Motors to retailer Conforama, according to the list.
"We want to deal with these layoff plans immediately," Francois Chereque, head of the CFDT union, France's largest by membership, told Europe 1 radio. "We are urgently requesting the state to focus on jobs. Jobs are the Number 1 problem."
The task of staving off an avalanche of job cuts falls to Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg, who was present at Tuesday's talks and has been given the mission of stopping healthy firms from laying off workers.
Critics doubt he will be able to do so, as courts have already struck down one attempt to freeze a layoff plan.
Unions also used Tuesday's talks to outline their views on how the new government should adjust the previous administration's raising of the retirement age and changes to the wage negotiation system and the minimum wage.
Chereque said Hollande would have to fulfill a campaign promise to raise the minimum wage, but said a rise of more than 20 percent, as hardline union FO wants, would be unrealistic.
Hollande struck a cautious note. "There will be an increase...but we have to be careful that this does not destabilize companies...especially small- and medium-sized companies which face competitiveness challenges," he said.
Disagreement over the minimum wage and other issues could end Hollande's election honeymoon in the run-up to the July summit as the moderate CFDT clashes with the all-or-nothing approach of the FO and CGT unions.
"The increase has got to be as much as possible. There hasn't been a boost in six years," FO head Jean-Claude Mailly said on I-Tele TV channel. Mailly said Ayrault had listened to unions but gave no hint of how big an increase might be granted.
Facing poor publicity over possible job cuts, the head of the Medef employers' association, Laurence Parisot, was keen to smooth over any tension with workers' unions with whom she often disagrees, telling journalists they were "all in the same boat".
Hollande, who promised during his campaign to create tens of thousands of public sector jobs, has yet to explain how he will boost the private sector, which analysts say is hampered by excessively rigid labor regulations.
With jobless claims running at a 12-year high, Hollande faces pressure to act quickly against unemployment, which a Harris Interactive poll found was the top concern for a majority of the French ahead of the June 10-17 legislative election.
As France's first Socialist president in 17 years, Hollande wants to grant unions a position on company boards, where they would have more say on staffing decisions.
On pensions, he plans to tweak conservative former president Nicolas Sarkozy's two-year hike in the minimum retirement age to allow workers who started working at 18 or 19 to retire at 60.
At his first EU summit, Hollande made it clear last week that he would stand up to Germany's focus on austerity in Europe and push for more to be done to stimulate growth.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Tim Pearce)
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