By John Irish and Emmanuel Jarry

PARIS (Reuters) - France's military will cut almost 8,000 jobs next year, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Thursday, detailing government belt-tightening plans that the far-right hopes will deliver it votes at municipal elections in 2014.

The cuts come as tensions rise within the 17-month-old coalition of Socialist President Francois Hollande, whose satisfaction ratings have fallen to 23 percent due to concerns about a stalled economy and high unemployment.

The Defence Ministry said in April that 34,000 jobs would likely be cut over the coming six years. But its overall budget will remain largely static after military officials and lawmakers said drastic spending cuts would reduce France's ability to counter global security threats.

Speaking at a news conference, Le Drian said 7,881 jobs would be cut next year, and defended the tight budget.

"The army model that we are now developing will enable France to have the leading army in Europe by 2019, in terms of numbers and efficiency," Le Drian said.

A handful of bases will be closed or restructured. One 800-man regiment will be dissolved in southern France with another moved from the town of Orange in the Vaucluse department, where support for the anti-immigrant, anti-European Union National Front is strong.

Marion Marechal-Le Pen, a National Front member of parliament for Vaucluse, said the cuts would hurt France's defenses and local economies in areas like hers.

"I can only worry about the immediate economic impact in a region that has already been heavily hit by unemployment and economic difficulties," she said.

"COST TO SOVEREIGNTY"

"The governments of the right and the left have preferred to sell off our military know-how and lose our diplomatic independence by making small short-term savings. That will cost France's sovereignty dearly in the coming years," she said.

France's military employs some 228,000 personnel today. A further 165,000 individuals are employed by the defence industry, not including sub-contractors.

The government plans 15 billion euros ($20 billion) in savings next year, and 3 billion in extra revenues from higher taxes and fighting tax evasion, to reduce the budget deficit.

Under the plans unveiled in the defence budget, the military will slow the pace at which it takes delivery of Rafale jets from Dassault Aviation, taking just 26 over the next years instead of the planned 11 a year.

The government hopes foreign orders will absorb some of the planes being rolled out by partly state-owned Dassault, which has yet to sell any of its flagship Rafales abroad.

After fierce competition with U.S., Russian and European rivals, France is in exclusive talks to sell 126 Rafales to India.

Le Drian said he was "optimistic" a deal would be sealed this year.

The military, which has sustained repeated budget cuts in recent years, is trying to overhaul the armed forces to create a more mobile army still capable of operating in two or three different theatres at the same time.

France's engagement in Mali this year, which drove back Islamist rebels, has underscored its need for robust intelligence resources and special forces.

For the next three years, the annual budget will be frozen at 31.4 billion euros, the same level as 2013, with the expectation that it will rise in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

"Given the context, this budget is balanced, ambitious and pragmatic," Le Drian said.

(Editing by Kevin Liffey)

 

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