Sarkozy reaches out to disillusioned youth

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is in the former papal town of Avignon on Tuesday to unveil a plan aimed at improving the lives of 16 to 25 year-olds, a segment of the population that remains far from loyal to his right-leaning UMP party.


There will be no talks on climate change or nuclear Iran on the French president’s menu in Avignon on Tuesday. Having just come back from the United States, where he attended the UN General Assembly and the G20 gathering in Pittsburgh, President Nicolas Sarkozy returns to a subject he would rather avoid: social reform.


In the old papal city, Nicolas Sarkozy will unveil a series of measures aimed at 16 to 25 year-olds, a segment of the population that has been particularly affected by the economic crisis. These include steps to help with housing, training and employment.


The left-leaning National Union of Students (UNEF) says the situation is alarming: "over the last year, unemployment among young people [ed: already almost three times that of the 25 - 49 year-old age group] has increased by 28%". For France's largest student union, “the young have been largely forgotten in the government’s anti-crisis measures.” 


At a recent press conference in 2001, the UNEF also denounced “a continued increase in student expenses since 2001".


The FAGE, an umbrella organisation representing student associations, is also concerned: “With a 3% increase this year, [the level of expenditure of returning students] has risen to alarming levels".

Take them by the hand


Nicolas Sarkozy is widely expected to build on a "Green Paper" drawn up by Martin Hirsch, France’s secretary for youth. The booklet, published in July, includes 57 proposals resulting from four months of intense committee discussions.

For Sarkozy, the Avignon meeting offers a chance to attract a volatile segment of the population. In the second rounf of the 2007 presidential election, his Socialist rival Ségolène Royal had scooped 63% of votes among the under 25 year-olds.

But he faces a tough task, as UNEF warned in a statement: “Students are not stupid: the time for rhetoric and communication is over. If the government does not have another perspective to offer the young apart from lack of qualifications, job insecurity and unemployment, it lays the foundations for a long-term rupture with the country's youth.”


Aurore Bergé, a spokesperson for the UMP's youth movement, remains optimistic: "Maybe decisions in favour of students have been diluted, giving an impression that Nicolas Sarkozy was not interested in the young," she acknowledged. “But the preconceived notion that young people are more inclined to the left, because we tend to see more of the minority unions on television, is being undermined. We are today the biggest youth movement in France, proving that the president’s image in France is changing.”



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