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World Perspective | EUROPE

Jobless in France Work at Improving Their Lot

January 02, 1998|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — For thousands of French men and women, there is little realistic hope of working again. And over the holiday season, while most of the rest of the country was feasting and exchanging presents, their patience ran out.

From Arras in the north to Marseilles on the Mediterranean, groups of jobless protesters have been occupying offices of the government employment agency. They have delayed high-speed rail service by gathering on the tracks at Marseilles and Chatellerault, and, in December, temporarily invaded the glass pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Since mid-December, action committees formed by the jobless have been demanding a 3,000-franc ($500) Christmas and New Year bonus, as well as increases in unemployment and welfare benefits.

"In France, unemployed people are ashamed of themselves. But it's not their fault that they're unemployed," Muhammad Lemssaoui, who has been unable to get a job in the four years since he graduated from the Sorbonne with a doctorate in literature, told reporters. "It's the system that treats them like they are not normal."

The demonstrations and sit-ins, some permanent, some off-and-on, mark the first time since the early 1980s that the unemployed in France have rallied together, often with the assistance of left-wing trade unions, to demand the attention of the government and the public.

The protests are a major challenge and embarrassment to Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's left-wing government, which took power in June promising to make jobs its priority.

"The homeless and destitute have the right to rise up," said Henri Malberg, a Communist member of the Paris City Council who joined protesters in the capital. Although the Paris stock market rose by more than 25% in 1997, Malberg complained, many French jobless are still having to survive on monthly benefits of $500 or less.

The latest news from the employment front was mixed. The government released figures this week that showed a 12.4% jobless rate in November. It was the first time in two years that the unemployment rate had dipped below 12.5%.

Although the improvement notably benefited people below the age of 25, ranks of the long-term jobless actually swelled by 1.2%, meaning that 36.8% of unemployed French men and women have not worked in at least a year.

Leaders of the Communists and Greens, partners in Jospin's government, have come out in support of the protesters. But Jospin has been trying to maintain strict budget austerity to qualify for the euro, Europe's new single currency, and his margin for maneuver is limited.

Because of government cutbacks, the Labor Ministry says, there is no money to pay the year-end bonuses to the jobless that had been a common practice in some areas. To give them out to everybody would cost an extra $1.5 billion, officials said.

Labor Minister Martine Aubry has promised to examine, case by case, demands for more state aid. But the sit-ins continued at 14 employment offices over New Year's, and protesters also briefly occupied the lobby of the Royal Monceau Hotel and Fouquet's restaurant in Paris.

Of worry to many is the possibility that France is becoming increasingly unequal, in part because of the economic integration of Europe. Official figures released late in 1997 said the registered unemployed of 3.1 million were only the hard core of a growing army of 7 million French forced to live off part-time or occasional jobs.

"In spite of our growing wealth and our massive means of redistribution, our economy appears to be incapable of eliminating poverty," Le Monde newspaper observed.

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