FACING what polls suggest will be solid repudiation in next month's national elections, France's ruling Socialists are seeking to turn the country's 10 percent unemployment rate in their favor.
By keeping a spotlight on a recently announced transfer by the Hoover home appliance company of 600 jobs from Burgundy, France, to Scotland, the Socialists are hoping to associate their conservative opposition with the kind of anti-labor measures they say Great Britain negotiated in order to snatch the Hoover jobs.
The strategy is risky because it focuses attention on France's 10 percent unemployment. In addition the emotional stir over the Hoover case could cause French support for the European Community's Single Market and other landmarks of EC integration to falter at a crucial period in Europe's construction.
In a recent opinion poll, 81 percent of the French cited unemployment as the single most important problem facing their country.
"Unemployment has been high on the list for a long time, but the percentage citing it first keeps going up," says Didier Witkowski, a political analyst with the Sofres polling organization here. Just last month, he notes, it was 77 percent.
The government has tried desperately to turn voters' gaze toward the country's internationally recognized economic achievements: record-low inflation, rising productivity, a widening trade surplus.
But the Socialists, in power under President Francois Mitterrand since 1981, are set for a severe electoral lashing over unemployment in legislative elections March 21-28.
"The French are feeling extraordinary disappointment in a Socialist Party that came to power attacking the right for its inability to address unemployment and promising to do something about it," says Michel Crozier, a noted sociologist specializing in labor issues. Yet while the Socialists cannot be fully blamed for the sag in French employment, he adds, "all the French remember is that when [the Socialists] arrived there were 1.5 million unemployed, and now there are 3 million."
That disappointment translates into a desire to "punish" those in power, Mr. Witkowski says, even though the French have few illusions about the conservative opposition's ability to do much better. "The voters want to sanction the government, even though they are realistic about whether the opposition can do any better," he says. "People don't expect any big improvements in two or even five years."
The Socialists are hoping to convey to voters that the opposition could do worse. "This is why we're seeing the Socialists emphasize social entitlements," Crozier says. "They want to send the message that they are under threat."
The Hoover case falls neatly into the Socialists' campaign. Last month Hoover, a subsidiary of the American company Maytag, announced it would transfer 600 jobs from its Dijon plant to a factory in Cambuslang, Scotland.
Both plants had known since June that one of the two would close, and both France and Britain offered incentives to keep their plant open. But workers in Scotland - where unemployment tops the French rate - agreed to wide-ranging cuts in benefits and less favorable working conditions shortly before the decision.
The French government immediately accused Britain of "social dumping" and of playing European workers against each other. EC Commission President Jacques Delors - a French Socialist - spoke last week of "job-poaching," even though EC officials including Mr. Delors acknowledge that Hoover appears to have done nothing illegal.
At home, the Socialists continue to cite the Hoover case alongside references to the conservative opposition's job-creation platform, which calls for reducing companies' costs in creating jobs. Conservative leaders have condemned the Hoover move, but Socialists point out that it is a conservative British government that refuses to sign the EC's social charter and is holding up a number of Community workers-rights measures.
BUT some observers say too much emphasis on a European role in France's unemployment problem could backfire by eroding French support for European integration.
At EC headquarters in Brussels, officials say one of their major concerns is that the public will conclude the Community has lowered barriers and streamlined regulations for companies and investors at the expense of workers, and will turn against deeper integration.
"People look at the issues raised by the Hoover case and say, `If that's what Europe is, then all we're getting out of it is the bad side,' " Crozier says.
In the meantime, French unemployment is expected to continue rising, at least for the next six months. INSEE, the national economic statistics institute, in December predicted a 0.3 percent increase, or about 100,000 more unemployed, by June, but now say that may have been low.