Chirac's army of jobless grows

Mary Dejevsky reports on the French leader's failure to tackle unemployment
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Paris - The monthly unemployment figures published yesterday brought more bad news for the French government, with another 28,000 people being added to the register in September, a rise of almost 1 per cent over August. The total now stands at 3.1 million, or 12.6 per cent of the population of working age, one of the highest rates in Europe.

Particularly worrying for the government was the 2.9 per cent rise in the number of under 25-year-olds without a job. Even though it was September, and the first time that some disappointed school-leavers might have registered as unemployed, the government had hoped to keep the rise down by dint of additional subsidies and training programmes.

The trend in unemployment in France has now been inexorably upward since Jacques Chirac was elected president and Alain Juppe became prime minister in June 1995.

This is despite Mr Chirac's election pledges to make jobs a priority in his programme to heal what he saw as the growing rift between the haves and the have-nots in French society.

In his victory speech on election night, he told supporters: "Employment will be my constant concern." In his presidential address to parliament, which was presented by Mr Juppe, he spoke of "waging war" on unemployment, saying: "I want each one of you, in your constituency, to spearhead our battle for jobs."

Mr Juppe's first policy statement to parliament stressed the priority of jobs, especially for the young unemployed, and claimed that his other priority, cutting the domestic budget deficit to meet the criteria for joining the single European currency, was entirely compatible with creating more jobs.

Over the past year, however, unemployment has risen by more than 1 per cent, no dent has been made in the number of under-25s without jobs, and the government has had to recognise the futility of many of its job creation schemes and subsidies, quietly ending many of them in the 1997 budget that is currently before parliament.

The government's failure to fulfil what was a priority of Mr Chirac's election programme and the policy that arguably gave him victory is a key factor in the government's current vulnerability and the depressed state of public morale in France.

Both Mr Chirac and Mr Juppe have called on French consumers to help economic growth by spending more, but fears about job security are blamed for holding them back.

The Socialist opposition was quick to decry the rise in unemployment yesterday, in particular the number of young without jobs.

A spokesman for the Socialist Opposition, Pierre Moscovici, described the rise in joblessness as "a disastrous consequence of the restrictive economic policies of the Juppe government" and said the Socialists were committed to making youth employment "an absolute priority".

The unemployment benefits agency, UNEDIC, added to the gloom by saying that end-of-year projections for unemployment would have to be raised.

Although French experts predict improved economic growth next year, there are fears that this may not affect employment. Many thousands more job losses are predicted in coming months, not only in the hard- hit defence and building sectors, but in several banks, airline companies, Moulinex and Eurotunnel.