WITH French voters set to vote for a new president next week, concern over jobs is dwarfing all other issues in public-opinion polls. But voters hold strong doubts that any candidate can resolve it.
''Employment is the only absolute priority of this campaign,'' says political pollster Roland Cayrol in Paris. ''Yet four rounds of surveys in this election indicate that voters expect that no candidate will be able to solve the problem.''
To combat France's persistent 12.3 percent unemployment rate, candidates across the political spectrum are making promises on this issue at odds with France's international commitments.
As a member of the European Union, for example, France is to work toward establishing a single European currency, which requires sharply cutting French deficits this year and the next. But the candidates' jobs strategies would increase them.
All candidates are itching to spend and subsidize. The right-of-center mayor of Paris and current front-runner, Jacques Chirac, has promised new subsidies and tax breaks for businesses to help create jobs. His fellow conservative, Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, is hoping to rise above his No. 3 slot in the polls with direct aid for the unemployed, which includes three years of training to change careers. Second-ranked Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin has called for a public-works program to create jobs and rebuild suburbs.
Former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing on Tuesday called on the two leading conservative candidates to hold France to its international commitments.
''If we want to be a part of the new Europe, on a par with Germany -- without forgetting that her economic power is double ours -- we must massively reduce our public and social deficits,'' he said in the daily Le Figaro newspaper.
Candidates who are still more conservative than Mr. Chirac and Mr. Balladur are pulling the debate sharply to the right, however, increasing pressure on the two leading conservatives to back off from international commitments.
Both Philippe de Villiers, who puts himself to the right of the mainstream, and the ultraright National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen call for rejecting the goal of a single European currency and reversing France's agreements to open borders within the European Union.
These two far-right candidates have a combined 20 percent of voter support, according to public surveys. Mr. Le Pen also calls for organizing the departure of immigrants to open up jobs for French citizens.
Polls indicate that 62 to 64 percent of French voters expect to vote for conservative candidates in the first round of voting on April 23, and that Chirac is expected to win a second round of voting on May 7.
But apathy is high. While a conservative victory in the upcoming elections seems clear, a conservative majority is not. Some 31 to 35 percent of the voters are still undecided, with just 10 days left before the election.
''A French demoralization colors all perceptions in this campaign,'' says Jean-Luc Parodi, secretary-general of the French Association of Political Science. ''A long economic crisis has undermined the basis of the French political system. The Socialist years ... created the conviction that politics has no miraculous solutions, and ... that if politics can't solve things, what good is politics?''
Strikes and street protests, dormant during all but the last two years of Francois Mitterrand's 14-year Socialist presidency are picking up. Today a general strike is expected to shut down public transportation in Paris. demonstrations now occur daily in the capital, where buses of riot police regularly park along side streets around student areas. Last weekend, some 20,000 to 30,000 people marched to protest unemployment and homelessness.
''Workers now feel that the economy is beginning to pick up and that holding down salaries hasn't helped the fight against unemployment,'' says political analyst Olivier Duhamel in Paris. ''They've also been encouraged by candidates' promises on employment. The result is that whoever wins the French presidency is going to find themselves in a very difficult situation, especially in the public sector, where the government is the first line of response.''