St. Denis, France — For Louis Artaud, Christmas didn't come this year. The day before, the 49-year-old millworker was laid off from his job in this depressed working-class suburb just north of Paris.
''I've worked since I was 16,'' he said. ''We still had a big meal with all the family, but without a job I just worried,'' he said.
The next working day, he dressed up in his Sunday best, a raggedy-looking blue suit, and joined the queue searching for work at the Agence Nationale Pour l'Emploi (National Employment Agency) here.
Inside, a dozen or so unemployed men stood silently, staring at the meager list of job offerings posted on the wall on little note cards. Their blank-looking stares and aimless shuffling gave the room an immense feeling of despair.
''There is more misery than ever around here,'' Mr. Artaud said.
Throughout France, unemployment is creating similar despair. During May's presidential election, it was the biggest issue, and Socialist President Francois Mitterrand pledged a war against it, to be waged through a public-works program reminiscent of former US President Roosevelt's, with the creation of 200 ,000 civil-service jobs. Instead, the unemployment ranks here have climbed by 200,000 since Mitterrand's victory, reaching an all-time high in November by topping the 2 million mark.
Still, the verdict on the new Socialist government's employment policies is not yet in. There are growing doubts, most ominously among businessmen who are supposed to do the hiring. But the majority of experts as well as the French population believe the government's policies must be given time.
Rising unemployment is such a big problem here not only because of the worldwide recession, but also because of unfavorable demographics. France's postwar baby boom was larger than that of other European countries, and consequently its labor force is the fastest growing in Europe, according to statistics released here this year by Hudson Research Europe Limited.
Just to keep unemployment at the 1979 level of 5.9 percent (it is now 7.8 percent) France would have to create 0.7 percent more jobs each year. In contrast, Germany could lose 0.1 percent of its jobs and have its unemployment rate remain steady at 3.2 percent.
Largely because of these pressures the Socialists have moved swiftly to enact the job legislation they promised during the campaign. But, as Labor Department spokesman Emile Favard admitted, even if the government can get the economy moving at a healthy 3 percent growth rate, it would create only 150,000 more jobs next year. That would not decrease the rate of unemployment, only keep it stable, Favard said.
To start actually decreasing unemployment in 1983, the government hopes to spread existing jobs among more people. The current 40-hour work week will be cut to 39 hours next year, and gradually to 35 hours by 1985. Paid vacations will be stretched from four weeks to five, and full-time workers will be encouraged by government bonuses to become part-timers.
The normal retirement age is also being lowered, from 65 to 60, and government is even offering companies generous financial incentives to pension off workers at age 55 if they are replaced by young recruits.
Economists don't know what to make of all these innovations. ''It is difficult to gauge the probable effects of the employment policy,'' concluded the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in its semiannual economic outlook released last week. Usually, the OECD puts out an economic survey of France each December, but this year its publication has been delayed until spring. ''People around here are reluctant to talk about France,'' OECD spokesman Peter Gaskell said.
The captains of industry have not been reluctant to talk about the unemployment program, however, and most of their comments have been negative. The employers have been rattled by the scope of the government's nationalization measures, by the big boost it has given to minimum industrial wages, and by the extension of its new wealth tax to hit factory owners. ''How can they ask us to create jobs and at the same time tax us through the roof,'' complained Bernard Giroux of the French employers' association.
He also argued that the government measures to pad the workforce will make French companies uncompetitive on the world market. ''Their programs will create jobs, all right, but they are false jobs,'' he said. ''They should spend their money to train people who can fill jobs now going unwanted.''
The Socialists know that ideological fire will not cure unemployment. Compromise with capitalism might: Businessmen, even if presently disillusioned, must be persuaded to invest and create jobs. As a result, in recent months President Mitterrand and Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy have set out to woo business leaders.
Mitterrand has made it clear, that, despite the nationalizations, the bulk of production will remain in private hands. Mauroy has also proposed legislation to exempt the bosses' industrial property from the government's new wealth tax provided the money saved is spent on job-creating investment.
The biggest issue, though, is what wages the employers will have to pay their employees for less work. Employers want to pay less for less work. Unions don't want to see the buying power of their members cut.
Here, too, with the aim of ensuring that productivity does not plummet, the Socialists seem to be siding with the employers. Labor Secretary Jean Auroux has recommended a ''decreased'' compensation, spokesman Favard said. ''We want to limit wage increases to 10 percent a year whereas before it was always the rate of inflation,'' he explained.
French inflation has been clipping along at a 14 percent-plus pace. But critics add that an increase in public spending will certainly cause an increase in inflation.
Limiting wage increases doesn't sit so well with workers like Louis Artaud who voted Socialist. ''The bosses want to cut my wage from $7 an hour to $5 an hour, and I won't take it,'' he said. ''I would prefer to starve. I want to work , I know my job, and I'm capable, but they must pay.''
Still, Artaud supports the Mitterrand government. ''They're trying, but the bosses are putting all types of obstacles in their path,'' he said. The majority of the French people agree. According to polls, nearly 60 percent approve of the government's actions, and are prepared to blame the bosses, rather than the government, if it fails.
Even though he sees no improvement in the local unemployment picture since Mitterrand's election, says Marc Lantrey of the National Employment Agency, the Socialist victory has made a difference for the unemployed. ''Before most of them were hopeless,'' he said. ''Now they have hope. They think the government will help them find work.''