French ministers unveil public works stimulus plan

3rd February 2009, Comments 0 comments

The announcement of the 26-billion-euro stimulus package comes four days after a million strikers demand for protection for jobs and salaries.

LYON – Half the French government jumped aboard a high-speed train to the heart of the country on Monday on a trip to unveil a package of public works projects designed to put the economy back on track.

Four days after more than a million angry strikers marched to demand action to protect jobs and salaries from the global financial storm, Prime Minister Francois Fillon took his top ministers to France's third-biggest city of Lyon.

But, even as they boarded the so-called "Recovery Express", their mission to promote part of a 26-billion-euro stimulus package was derailed by more grim news on jobs and growth.

French unemployment surged by 45,000 in December, amid an unprecedented collapse in industrial output as a result of the world economic crisis, Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said.

Briefing reporters onboard the train, Lagarde said the last quarter of 2008 had been marked by an "unheard of ... collapse in industrial production, especially in November and December."

Echoing her message, car makers - whose sector directly or indirectly employs 10 percent of the French workforce - revealed that sales had fallen 7.9 percent in January.

With approximately 2,100,000 jobless, France has an unemployment rate of around eight percent. The European Commission predicts the rate will hit 9.8 percent by the end of this year and 10.6 percent in 2010.

The IMF expects France's economy to shrink by about 1.9 percent this year, an estimate which Lagarde confirmed, saying: "All the countries of the eurozone will be at about minus two ... we shouldn't have any illusions."

France's official unemployment numbers had been due for release on Thursday last week, but was delayed because government statisticians took part in last week's nationwide one-day strike.

Despite President Nicolas Sarkozy's announcement of a massive stimulus package for industry, trade unions say too little is being done to protect ordinary workers and lift stagnant wages.

The decision to set aside EUR 360 billion for French banks, while refusing to boost low pensions or the minimum wage, has fanned public anger.

Fillon and 18 ministers headed to Lyon to explain how the government plans to create jobs and counter the slowdown, by pumping part of the EUR 26 billion into a major public works programme.

"We are the recovery train. It's an express, with rapid results," Patrick Devedjian, recently named "Recovery Minister" by Sarkozy, told reporters on board the train.

Government spokesman Luc Chatel said Fillon and his team would unveil 1,000 projects, large and small, to be conducted across the country, focusing on upgrading transport links and public housing stock.

According to a leaked list of the main projects published by Le Figaro, EUR 1.4 billion will be spend on research and universities, another EUR 1.4 billion on prisons and the justice system and EUR 1.7 billion on transport.

Smaller sums will go to culture and heritage projects and defence.

[AFP / Expatica]

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