German unemployment fell for the third month running in May, the latest data show, but the improvement had more to do with seasonal factors than any genuine upturn in the labour market.

A total of 4.807 million people were out of work in the euro zone's biggest economy, a drop of 161,000 compared with April's figures, representing an unemployment rate of 11.6% from 12% in April.

The number of unemployed fell by 92,000 people in the western part of Germany where most industry is concentrated, and by 69,000 in the former communist eastern part of the country.

But the jobless rate remains almost twice as high in the east, with 18.9%, against 9.7% in western Germany, according to data published by the Federal Labour Agency.

Despite the slight improvement, the number of unemployed has risen by 513,400 in the space of one year.

Unemployment was by far the most important issue for voters in Germany's most industrialised state of North Rhine-Westphalia where Schroeder's Social Democrats suffered a devastating defeat to the opposition Christian Democrats in a state election this month.

The fall of the traditional Social Democrat stronghold, where 1.1 million people are unemployed, prompted Schroeder to call for a general election 12 months earlier than scheduled.