French Give Heart to Jobless

Amid protests, Socialist leader must pick this week between budget, benefits.

Torn between his head and his heart, French Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin is struggling to cope with the gravest crisis his seven-month-old government has faced, as an army of the unemployed presses demands he knows he cannot meet.

Backed by wide public support, the French jobless show no sign of relenting in their campaign for more generous benefits. But the government's top priority is to join the single European currency next year, and that means it has to be tightfisted to keep the budget deficit down.

"Clearly this or that emergency has to be taken into account," Mr. Jospin said last week as the nationwide protests mounted. "But without forgetting the economic facts and without threatening the coherence of the policy we are following."

The battle of wills, in which unemployed protesters have occupied public buildings and staged ever larger demonstrations over the past month, has touched a nerve in public sensibilities here.

In a recent opinion poll by Credoc, a Paris-based polling agency, 52 percent of the respondents said their greatest daily worry was the fear of losing their job.

Another poll that was released yesterday, and was commissioned by the Daily Libration newspaper, found that 78 percent of those surveyed have either a family member or a friend who is or has been unemployed.

Such surveys help explain why the public strongly sympathizes with the protesters' demands for higher welfare payments, and regards them as justified, posing a major challenge to Jospin's policy, not to mention his popularity.

More than 3 million people are out of work in France - 12.4 percent of the work force and nearly three times the rate in the United States. Most worrying, more than half of the jobless have been out of work for more than two years, swelling the ranks of an increasingly alienated and embittered underclass.

When you haven't worked for several years, when unemployment benefits have run out, and you are living on basic welfare of $360 per month - well below the poverty line here - it is easy to feel part of les exclus, "the excluded" in French parlance.

The long-term jobless want more money, to be sure, but equally important, they do not want to feel that they have been cast aside.

"I need a real job, and it's not simply a question of cash," said Yassine Hani, an unemployed stock manager, as he marched through the streets of Paris last week with several thousand fellow demonstrators.

"I want to be in society like everybody else," he said.

A banner at the demonstration echoed Mr. Hani's point. Alongside demands for free transport and free postal services for the unemployed, the slogan insisted on "respect for our dignity and our citizenship."

It is that desire that lies behind the protesters' demands for a year-end bonus in their unemployment checks: The 13th month of salary, paid at the end of each year, is commonplace in France, and calls for a Christmas bonus reflected jobless people's nostalgia for their salaried past.

Another slogan that the demonstrators have been chanting lays bare the challenge facing the government: Un emploi, c'est un droit - "A job is a right."

In the good old days of heavy state intervention and generous subsidies, a job was indeed every French citizen's right, as a member of society. But although Jospin has not renounced that tradition, he is making no promises of full employment any more as France faces up to the pressures of globalization.

Jospin is due to address the nation later this week on television, in a bid to calm the situation. Already his aides have said the government is studying a possible increase in minimum welfare payments, but any raise would not become effective until 1999, they caution.

The prime minister cannot promise the extra money the demonstrators are demanding, which would raise the minimum benefit threefold to $1,115 a month. Such a pledge would bust the budget beyond repair at a time when France is battling to keep its budget deficit below 3 percent of GNP, a condition for membership in the single European currency, the euro, when it is launched in January 1999.

Instead, the prime minister is working on a law to cut the work week by four hours, to 35 hours, with no cut in wages. This measure, Jospin promised during last year's election campaign, would be a major stimulus to the creation of more jobs.

That is far from certain, however. Employers are fiercely opposed to the idea, arguing that they cannot afford to hire more workers when they are obliged to pay social-security contributions that increase the cost of an employee by almost 60 percent. Some big companies have already threatened to move their operations out of France if the 35-hour work week becomes law - which would only throw more people out of work.

In the meantime, says Stephane Rozes, a political analyst who heads the Paris-based CSA Opinion polling firm, Jospin "has to face up to the contradictions that his predecessors faced - between meeting social demands and the need to win reelection on the one hand, and on the other, tight external monetary constraints that run counter to public opinion."

In other words, between a rock and a hard place.

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