France puts jobs at heart of economy rescue plan

 The French government said jobs were the number one priority as it prepared to unleash a mammoth spending plan for the coronavirus-hit economy on Thursday.

Prime Minister Jean Castex promised 160,000 new jobs in 2021 as part of a recovery plan worth 100 billion euros ($120 billion), designed to help growth and employment at a time when daily virus numbers in France are on the rise again.

"Relaunching the economy and fighting unemployment is the plan's priority objective," Castex said.

"I hope that the recovery plan will create 160,000 jobs in 2021 -- that is our aim," he told broadcaster RTL.

The French economy has experienced its worst downward spiral since 1945, with gross domestic product plunging 13.8 percent in the second quarter, after a drop of more than five percent in the first.

The government expects GDP for 2020 to contract by 11 percent, and a total of 800,000 jobs lost over the year.

The budget boost, a combination of new spending and tax breaks, is four times the amount France spent over a decade ago to deal with the global financial crisis, according to the government.

It is separate from a 750 billion euro European Union plan agreed after acrimonious haggling in July and comes on top of hundreds of billions already spent in an early crisis response during the first months of the pandemic.

- 'For the future' -

Over the medium term, the government has pledged to use the money to stimulate investment in green technologies and help some economic sectors such as health care become more competitive.

"This plan is not just designed to dress the wounds from the crisis," Castex told Le Figaro daily. "It lays the ground for the future."

President Emmanuel Macron had said in the run-up to the stimulus plan that it would prepare "the France of 2030" with its emphasis on decarbonizing the economy, improving corporate competitiveness and jobs.

Economists have welcomed the departure from the kind of austerity measures seen after the 2008 crisis which were "a huge error," said Philippe Martin, who heads up the CAE think tank which advises the government.

This time, "the focus is not on public debt," agreed Xavier Ragot, president of the OFCE economics institute.

The economy saw a lively but brief rebound just after the end of lockdown measures in mid-May but has since shown worrying signs of sliding back again, while French virus infection rates are back on the rise.

Measures to prevent a feared second virus wave, such as mandatory mask-wearing at the workplace, are seen undermining the very confidence among economic actors that the government is desperately trying to restore.

Unlike the post-2008 crisis response, much of the new plan targets the supply and investment side of the economy, namely businesses.

The measures over the next two years include 35 billion euros' worth of help for the corporate sector, much of it in the shape of tax cuts.

Some 30 billion euros are earmarked for greener policies.

NGOs have said this was too little and called on the government to demand environmental commitments from companies in return for state help.

- Businesses or consumers? -

The government has resisted calls for specific measures to boost consumer spending, such as VAT cuts like those seen in Germany, saying its heavy financing of partial unemployment measures had already done much to keep consumers' purchasing power intact.

French households have accumulated 80 billion euros in savings since March, significant firepower if people could be induced to spend, analysts say.

"The best way to support demand is to create jobs," Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said during the plan's preparation.

Opposition politicians meanwhile have said the new money, which is part of France's 2021 budget to be voted on in parliament only at the end of the year, may come too late for many companies.

"Every day lost widens the social divide", said Socialist party spokesman Boris Vallaud.

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