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French President Francois Hollande leaves the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, July 15, 2016, after attending an emergency defence meeting the day after the Bastille Day truck attack in Nice. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

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By Emmanuel Jarry

PARIS (Reuters) - Long under fire for the economy's slow recovery, French President Francois Hollande looked his chirpiest in months in his traditional Bastille Day TV interview.

Nine months from a presidential election, unemployment was showing signs it may at last start falling, and France had hosted the Euro soccer championship without a major security scare.

Hollande brushed aside questions about the cost of his hairdresser which had pre-occupied French journalists over past days, and took the opportunity to announce that the state of emergency in place since November's Paris killings would be lifted before the end of July.

Before the day was out, the dark clouds were back over his re-election hopes. The truck attack that night on a crowd of revellers in Nice, southeast France, inevitably shifted the political focus back to security.

After the attack that killed 84 people and was claimed by Islamic State, opposition politicians were jockeying to sound tougher than each other on security. Their remarks stood in stark contrast to the restraint and unity showed last year, after gun and bomb attacks against Paris entertainment venues in November and against a satirical newspaper in January.

The state of emergency, with reinforced police powers, is back in place for another six months.

"Before there was still a collective reflex to rally behind the government, but now the need to hold someone to account has destroyed that," political analyst Thomas Guenole said.

The broader public has hardly been more sympathetic. A poll shows just a third consider the government up to the task of defending the nation against terrorism threats, compared to around half after the two attacks of 2015.

On Monday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls was jeered by crowds at a commemoration for victims in Nice.

"This theme could sweep aside all others" heading towards the two-round presidential election in April and May, said political analyst Jerome Fourquet with pollsters Ifop.

The issue has already totally eclipsed debate over a contested labour reform that had been the focus of the political class for months, Fourquet said.

On Wednesday, those reforms aimed at making hiring and firing easier were due to make their final passage through parliament, but news bulletins all but ignored the subject which for months has dominated headlines with related strikes, violent protests, and a rebellion within the ruling Socialist party.

TOUGH TALK

Fourquet said one natural beneficiary of the focus on security was conservative former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who has long cultivated a no-nonsense image in that area, though detractors point out he presided over cuts in police and armed forces numbers as Hollande's predecessor in 2007-2012.

Ahead of the attack in Nice, Sarkozy was seeing modest poll gains even though his outsized personality grates on many voters.

An uplift for Sarkozy is bad news for his main rival for the conservative ticket, Alain Juppe, a former prime minister who has been leading in the polls.

Nine years older than either Sarkozy or Hollande at 70, much less divisive than Sarkozy and widely seen as a steady pair of hands if otherwise uninspiring, Juppe is not naturally strong on security, leaving him scrambling to sound tough.

"We should have done more, better and faster," Juppe said on BFM TV, calling for extremist preachers to be jailed or deported and deploying more police while beefing up intelligence services.

Juppe, Sarkozy and other likely presidential candidates belonging to the conservative Republicains party are under growing pressure to distinguish themselves as they prepare to square off in a primary election in November.

Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen could also stand to gain considerably from the new focus on security, according to political analyst Frederic Dabi, also with pollsters Ifop.

Her party says requests for membership are flooding in. Dabi said its traditional hard line on security, immigration and national identity played well with many voters after the latest attack by 31-year-old Tunisian Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel.

WHO DON'T WE WANT?

While polls predict Le Pen could be one of the two candidates facing each other in a runoff in the two-round presidential election - possibly at Hollande's expense - she has still been seen as very unlikely to win in the second round.

The run-off could be decided by the question of who voters dislike most.

An Ifop poll asking which candidate voters absolutely do not want to see in the Elysee Palace presidential residence, published this week but conducted before the Nice attack, shows just how much disaffection there is in France with the entire political class.

A staggering 73 percent of voters do not want Hollande re-elected "under any circumstances". Sarkozy is next on 66 percent, but Le Pen is a close third on 63, an indication of how difficult it could be for her to recruit more support regardless of the security situation.

Even Britain's decision last month to quit the European Union is seen as a double-edged sword for her as the bad economic consequences for the UK become more obvious and temper enthusiasm for her call for France to take the same route.

Hollande has yet to say whether he would seek re-election despite hinting he might in his Bastille Day interview, but has conditioned a bid on unemployment starting to fall, which does not look impossible in the months ahead.

That may not even matter now though, if concerns about security do not subside.

That seems unlikely. The latest attack is the most indiscriminate to date - outside the capital where the previous two took place, and focused not on journalists, Jews or youth as the other attacks were.

"The number and type of victims, families come for July 14, the fact that it was in the provinces and the way the attack was carried out with a truck driven into the crowd all means that more than ever everybody is concerned," Fourquet said.

(Writing by Leigh Thomas; Editing by Andrew Callus and Peter Graff)

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