%mlink(STRY:; PHOTO:; AUDIO:%)

PARIS (AP) _ The French government is pressing Michel Bon to step down as head of debt-ridden, state-controlled telecommunications giant France Telecom, the daily Le Monde reported Friday.

The newspaper, citing unnamed sources, said President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin overruled finance minister Francis Mer in demanding that Bon quit. The details of his exit were yet to be finalized, the paper said.

The Finance Ministry declined to comment on the report, but noted that France Telecom's board is due to meet Thursday. The Prime Minister's office also refused comment, as did France Telecom.

Speculation has mounted that Bon's days as chairman and chief executive at the French telecommunications operator were numbered.

The government reportedly holds Bon responsible for failing to resolve a long-running dispute with German mobile affiliate Mobilcom as well as failing to stem a steep slide in France Telecom's share price this year. The company is struggling with nearly $60 billion in debt.

Nevertheless, the Finance Ministry issued a statement of public support for France Telecom on Thursday, assuring that ``adequate measures of support will be taken'' if there are financing problems.

The government owns a 55 percent stake in France Telecom.

France Telecom's first-half results are due out next Friday, a day after its board meeting which is expected to decide what to do with Mobilcom, in which it has a 28.5 percent stake.

France Telecom has to decide whether to let the troubled German operator fail or take full control.