CHAMPIGNY, FRANCE — Hantal Mariani doesn't look as if she's over the hill. Bubbling with energy, radiating good humor, and looking on the bright side of everything, you would think an employer would be delighted to have her on the payroll.
"I'm in great shape, but I'm 47 and I'm too old. People don't want me," she says with a wry half-smile. "It's dramatic: I have two boys who need me to work."
Ms. Mariani used to be a bookkeeper, but five years ago the family business where she worked went bust. She hasn't had a proper job since, even though she applies regularly for positions such as school janitor. "Now, I'm ready to do anything," she says.
But Mariani hasn't had any offers, and now she is one of the long-term unemployed - a growing number of French men and women whose frustration at their lack of a future, and anger at living on a pittance, has boiled over into nationwide protests.
"I'm not a demonstrator by nature, but circumstances have led me to it," explains Mariani, as she helps out at the local headquarters of a jobless organization in this Paris suburb where unemployment is rife.
"The hardship is not just economic, it's psychological. It's also a permanent fight against exclusion," she says.
A single mother raising two adolescent sons since her husband left 10 years ago, Mariani has about $160 a month left over for food, clothes, and extras when she has paid her bills. The amount is clearly not enough.
"Meat is off the menu now, except for chicken, and every now and again some ground beef to do stuffed potatoes or lasagna," she sighs.
"But I'm lucky - I get help from my parents," who send $100 or so each month, she explains. "This is not the way my father imagined my future though."
Mariani stays busy to keep her spirits up, but not all of her neighbors are so able to resist being ground down by years of joblessness.
In the rundown office of the Association for Jobs, Information, and Solidarity (APEIS) where she spends several afternoons a week, knots of men with nothing better to do hang out and mope. Some are dulled by the use of alcohol or prescription antidepressants.
Mariani believes the nationwide movement to raise welfare payments, and to press the Socialist government for a more effective policy on jobs, at least has the merit of having galvanized people who otherwise would lose all hope.
"At each demonstration you feel that the movement is getting stronger," says Mariani.
"For too long the unemployed stayed steeped in their misfortune - now there is a sense of opening, and some new hope."