French economy sheds more jobs ahead of local polls
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French unemployment registered a slight rise in February, official statistics showed on Wednesday, in a new blow for President François Hollande's government ahead of local elections this weekend.
After a dip in January, the new figures from the labour ministry showed the total number of jobseekers in mainland France rose to 3.49 million people last month, from 3.48 million the previous month.
That represented an increase of 12,000, compared to the 19,100 who exited the dole the previous month.
Taking into part-time workers and overseas populations, unemployment affected 5.6 million people at the end of February.
Despite that negative overall evolution, French Labour Minister Francois Rebsamen drew attention to the decline of 6,300 in the numbers of jobseekers with no activity whatever, a 0.2-percent shrinkage over the past two months.
Rebsamen called that improvement "encouraging," and the first of its kind since 2008.
He also applauded the drop in youth unemployment for the past two consecutive months, including a 0.3-percent decline in February, which he attributed to government programmes designed to stimulate job creation for young people.
By contrast, joblessness among older workers continued its rise in February with a 0.7-percent increase that lifted the figure for the past 12 months to 9.1 percent.
Long-term unemployment proved equally stubborn, with the number of people registered as collecting unemployment benefits over the past year rising 9.5 percent to 2.28 million. The increase in that category in February was 0.8 percent.
The figures come at a particularly sensitive time for Hollande's Socialist government, which faces a second round of local elections Sunday that conservative rivals are expected to dominate.
Persistently high French joblessness is also troubling for the ruling left's long-term outlook, with 2017 presidential elections looming ever closer.
Hollande has pledged not to seek re-election in 2017 if he fails to bring down stubbornly high unemployment -- but there have been few positive signs in recent months.
Former president and current leader of the main opposition UMP party, Nicolas Sarkozy, has made joblessness a focal point of his attacks, predicting the arrival of "many more unemployed people" by the end of 2015.
"When unemployment starts going down, it will be because you have left, Mr. Hollande," Sarkozy mocked during a campaign meeting in Marseille this month.
Rebsamen has promised that "2015 will be a better year than 2014," with joblessness "stabilising, or decreasing."
But Socialist Prime Minister Manual Valls sounded more sombre about the medium-term outlook.
"As long as we do not have sufficient growth levels, meaning above 1.5 percent, it will be difficult to bring unemployment figures down."
Valls' government anticipates economic expansion of just one percent this year, with most independent estimates not being much better.