Hollande announces measure to combat ‘economic state of emergency’
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François Hollande on Monday presented his plan to reduce France’s chronically high unemployment with measures described by the press as “playing his last cards” and by the conservative opposition as “an insult to the jobless”.
Hollande, the least popular French president in recent times, has vowed not to stand for a second term in 2017 if he fails to reduce unemployment.
Since he came to office in 2012, unemployment has risen by 650,000. There are now 3.57 million jobseekers in France who have no work whatsoever, representing just over 10% of the workforce.
In an annual meeting with business leaders, Hollande outlined a 2-billion-euro plan that included a massive training programme and cash handouts to firms taking on new employees, insisting that these measures would be sufficient to fight France’s “economic state of emergency”.
Small and medium-sized business will receive a payment of up to 2,000 euros for every new work contract where the salary is up to 1.3 times the minimum wage, he said.
He also announced vocational training courses, in priority areas such as IT and the environment, to be provided for 500,000 long-term unemployed, a move that critics have said would merely artificially change jobseekers’ status from unemployed to “in training”.
Critics also noted the absence of any meaningful relaxation of France’s famously labour-friendly employment laws, which make it difficult for employers to fire staff on permanent contracts, or any reduction to the high taxes and social costs associated with taking on new employees.
‘An insult to whitewash’
If Hollande is banking on Monday’s announcement to reverse his dismal political fortunes, the French are less than convinced.
A recent Odexa poll for iTELE found that 77% of respondents did not believe the measures would make an impact on unemployment levels, while commentators have been scathing at what they consider half measures to confront France’s most enduring economic and social problem.
“While no one contests the benefits of training people, everyone knows you also have to improve the conditions for actually getting people into work,” conservative daily Le Figaro said in an editorial on Monday, predicting little change in unemployment and failure for Hollande’s Socialists on the unemployment front.
“What is needed is something that will upset the left, namely a massive reduction in social charges and employment taxes coupled with much greater flexibility in employment law.”
Financial daily Les Echos was equally scathing: “Hollande once again risks disappointing those people who need him to break down France’s taboos and to take shock measure such as relaxing France’s employment laws.”
Opposition politicians also called out the president on Monday. Jean-Christophe Lagarde, head of the centrist UDI party, said the measures were “an insult to whitewash” when it came to solving the unemployment problem.
“The state is not in a position to suddenly put 500,000 people into training in less than a year,” he told France’s Radio Classique. “The training organizations don’t exist, there aren’t any trainers, and there isn’t enough money.”
“It is an insult to those people who live the reality of being unemployed,” he added. “The unemployed are not mere statistics that can be massaged for political benefit.”
Conservative lawmaker Guillaume Larrivé and spokesman for the opposition The Républicans also called the measures “an insult to France’s 5.7 million [benefits claimants]”.
“What planet are Hollande and his government living on if they think a cheque of 2,000 euros is going to make the blindest bit of difference?” he said in an interview with RFI on Monday, while also lambasting the president for “doing absolutely nothing about employment laws”.
Former employment minister and fellow member of The Republicans Bertrand Xavier, who is head of the large Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie region, told Les Echos: “Business leaders are not interested in chasing small bonuses as an incentive to take people on. What they want is for social charges and taxes to be reduced. It is a doable and durable solution to this problem.”