Hollande's job plan draws more jeers than cheers

French President Francois Hollande delivering a speech during his New Year's greeting on Jan 11, 2016.
French President Francois Hollande delivering a speech during his New Year's greeting on Jan 11, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

Critics dismiss French President's initiative as an election gimmick

French President Francois Hollande has unveiled a plan to slash his country's high unemployment.

Saying France is facing an "economic state of emergency" every bit as daunting as the terrorist challenge, he announced that his government will make available €2 billion (S$3.1 billion) in additional subsidies to boost apprenticeships and put 500,000 jobless people in vocational training programmes.

"We are not talking about some statistical gimmick, but about a fundamental structural measure," he told trade union and business leaders on Monday.

Yet with the presidential election scheduled for April next year, Mr Hollande's initiative was immediately dismissed by critics as irrelevant. "Francois Hollande is not treating the fundamental problem," said Mr Bruno Le Maire, a rising star in the Republicans, the centre-right main opposition movement. "He is merely engaged in a political manoeuvre."

The availability of jobs was the key concern of the electorate at the last polls in 2012, which Mr Hollande won with a pledge to "reverse the curve of unemployment", as he put it then. The promise was reiterated in 2014, when Mr Hollande told workers at the Michelin car tyre factory in central France that he would "have no reason to be a candidate, and no chance of being re-elected, if unemployment did not go down before 2017", when his current term expires.

The government claims that the main problem is a lack of basic education and skills. One million of those on the dole have no baccalaureate, France's national secondary school diploma, equivalent to A-levels under the British system. A further 700,000 unemployed don't even have a "certificate of professional aptitude", which testifies that they have mastered any profession.

Unfortunately for him, all of France's labour statistics went in the wrong direction. Since his election, 650,000 people have either lost their jobs or failed to get one. At 10 per cent of the labour force, France's jobless rate is almost double that of Germany or Britain. And although the French economy is emerging from years of stagnation, youth unemployment remains stubbornly high: One in four people aged between 15 and 24 has no job.

Mr Hollande infuriated his traditional left-wing supporters by reversing course soon after his election, when he pushed through €40 billion in tax cuts for businesses, in the hope that this would lower unemployment. Last year, he appointed former banker Emmanuel Macron as Economy Minister, a move hailed as another gesture to reassure France's industrial bosses that the Socialist President understands their concerns. Yet none of these measures made much difference.

The government claims that the main problem is a lack of basic education and skills. One million of those on the dole have no baccalaureate, France's national secondary school diploma. A further 700,000 umemployed people don't even have a "certificate of professional aptitude", which testifies they have mastered any profession. In effect, a large chunk of the unemployed may be unemployable.

Under the measures announced on Monday and taking effect immediately, small firms with fewer than 250 current workers will qualify for a €2,000 yearly government payout for each unemployed person they hire at minimum wages or above. Mr Hollande also plans to offer training schemes to one million unemployed young people, a jump from the 600,000 training slots now available; this "will reinforce the skills of those currently ill-equipped for the labour force", he says. But labour specialists warn that training firms will require most of this year to prepare for the large influx of trainees. Critics also say such schemes don't boost long-term employment: Two-thirds of those who retrain promptly return to the dole queues.

France's biggest problem may not be a lack of skills, but rigid employment laws and powerful trade unions which deter employers from taking risks in hiring fresh personnel because the costs of firing them are prohibitive. Mr Hol-lande's new package does nothing to address this.

Opposition parties accuse the President of seeking to temporarily lower the numbers of unemployed before the election by reclassifying them as people under training.

"Francois Hollande is not trying to win his bet against unemployment; he is only trying to create the minimal conditions for standing in elections next year," says Mr Guillaume Tabard, editor of Le Figaro, the top centre-right daily newspaper.  

But it's unlikely this will be sufficient to get Mr Hollande re-elected. Opinion polls indicate that the popularity he enjoyed soon after the terrorist attacks in Paris last November has evaporated: More than 70 per cent of voters want him to refrain from standing for election.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2016, with the headline 'Hollande's job plan draws more jeers than cheers'. Print Edition | Subscribe