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Euro zone unemployment at record high 10.9%

Unemployment in the 17 countries that make up the euro zone was at a record high of 10.9% in March, according to a new report that likely has incumbents in Sunday’s elections breaking into a cold sweat.

The jobless rate is up from 10.8% in February and also from the year-earlier rate of 9.9% in March 2011, according to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics office. Unemployment, now at the highest level since the euro debuted in 1999, has been rising for nearly a year in the region.

With major elections looming in France and Greece this weekend, the dour news may influence voters already burdened by severe austerity measures implemented in the wake of the European debt crisis.

The euro zone now has more than 17 million people without jobs. That’s 169,000 more than in February and 1.7 million more than last March. The percentage of people out of work seemed to dip early last year from a high in 2010 but has since climbed.

Across the euro zone, 22.1% of young people under age 25 are now unemployed. In Greece and Spain, more than half of them are.

The unemployment rate is 21.7% in Greece (up from 14.7% a year earlier) and 24.1% in Spain (from 20.8%), according to the most recent figures available. France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy is trailing challenger Francois Hollande in the polls, maintained its 10% unemployment rate in March – up from 9.6% the previous year.

Joblessness was lowest in Austria, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany, which has been hesitant to endanger its 5.6% rate by pulling all the financial weight for the rest of the euro zone.

In the U.S., where presidential campaigns are also in full swing, the job picture has been hazy.

Pollster Gallup found Wednesday that its job creation index was near a four-year high, with 36% of workers nationwide saying their bosses are in hiring mode. On the same day, a report from ADP said employers added the smallest number of workers to U.S. payrolls in seven months.

Organizations such as the IMF and OECD have recently put pressure on the U.S. – which they say is economically healthier – to help ensure stability in Europe while also urging governments there to temper their stringent austerity policies.

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