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Hope, Despair of Jobless Play Key Role in Presidential Election

May 4, 1995

SAINT-OUEN, France (AP) _ Former accountant Alain Lepage, out of work for four years, scrapes along with welfare and desperate hope in this depressed industrial Paris suburb.

``The fact I’m an activist allows me to know I’m not alone,″ said the 43-year-old Lepage.

He is one of 3.3 million jobseekers lumped by statisticians into France’s 12.2 percent unemployment rate _ a pivotal issue in Sunday’s presidential election.

``I’ve had 50-year-old men who cried, their wives left them, they were behind on their rent and in debt,″ said Catherine Annouch, a consultant at an unemployment office where Lepage and others protested last week to demand more help finding work.

``There are days when I’m very low. It’s never been this bad,″ said Jean-Louis Huber Garros, 54, a former contractor. Divorced, he earns his keep helping his elderly landlord. ``I tried to commit suicide once, but I failed,″ he said.

France slowly has begun to emerge from its worst postwar recession, which last year drove the jobless rate to 12.6 percent, among the highest in Europe. Many of those, fed up with mainstream parties, cast protest votes in the first round of the presidential election April 23. A record 15 percent voted for far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, who promised to send home 3 million immigrants. A record 40 percent of the vote went to fringe parties.

``If I could vote, I’d vote for Le Pen,″ said electrician Abdel Marouk, a 45-year-old Tunisian without a steady job since 1991 and living legally in France with his wife on $630 welfare a month. ``He’s on the side of the worker. He wants to expel illegal immigrants.″

Socialist Lionel Jospin, who led in the first round with 23.3 percent, and conservative Jacques Chirac, second with 20.8 percent, are courting those votes with promises to fight unemployment.

The last polls gave Chirac a nine- to 10-point edge over Jospin, but about 20 percent of voters said they were undecided or could change their minds.

Outgoing Socialist President Francois Mitterrand and conservative Premier Edouard Balladur have been accused of doing too little to cut the jobless rate.

``It’s clear that political parties have gotten the message and see that their survival depends on doing something about it,″ said Philippe Cigogne of the French Observatory of Economic Conditions.

The government has been restricted by a $60 billion budget deficit and hard-nosed monetary policy keeping interest rates high to stabilize the franc. Both Chirac and Jospin have supported cutting social security taxes paid by employers, amounting to as much as 50 percent of labor cost. Jospin has proposed a $7 billion program to rebuild depressed suburbs and clean up the environment to create 600,000 jobs annually.

Both have signaled support for increasing the minimum wage to stimulate consumption, expanding job training and cutting the work week to spread jobs around.

But neither has explained exactly how they will pay for the reform.

Lepage, who voted Communist in the first round and planned to vote for Jospin in the runoff, pounds the pavement.

``When I look for work, they ask for a diploma ... Or they say I have too much experience. So I go ‘round and ’round,″ he said.

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