By Leigh Thomas
PARIS (Reuters) - France's labour minister on Tuesday rejected pressure from the opposition to resign over the government's failure to get unemployment falling last year as promised, insisting jobless totals had finally peaked.
In a setback for President Francois Hollande, data showing a rise in jobless claims to record levels in December crushed his promise of reversing a rise in unemployment by the end of 2013.
"We didn't reach the target," Michel Sapin, one of Hollande's closest political allies, told France Inter radio.
"The overall unemployment trend was not reversed, but we are very close to doing it," he said, adding the turnaround could be "a few days, a few months" away.
Sapin seized on the fact that the rise in jobless claims slowed in recent months as a sign that the government's efforts to fight unemployment were bearing fruit.
However, economists say that any improvement was mostly because of state-sponsored jobs rather than the strength of the economy, which the government forecasts will grow a mere 0.9 percent this year.
December's increase prompted calls from the conservative UMP opposition for Sapin to stand down for not meeting what Hollande had cast as his Socialist government's top priority.
"That's just low-ball politics as tends to be the case with Jean-Francois Cope," Sapin said of the UMP's president.
A monthly survey by the official INSEE statistic agency found that the number of households concerned about unemployment rose again this month, although that did not prevent consumer confidence from rising.
In a further discouraging sign, temporary employment - considered as bellwether for future hiring trends - eased in December, the Prism'Emploi recruitment association said.
Hollande said earlier this month more needed to be done to fight unemployment and, in a stark shift of policy, announced plans to offer French companies 30 billion euros ($41 billion)of tax breaks by 2017 in exchange for accepting hiring targets.
French unions and employers met Tuesday in their latest round of negotiations over reforming the heavily indebted state jobless fund with an end March deadline to wrap up the talks looming.
(Additional reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey and Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Mark John and Alison Williams)