PARIS — With France's unemployment rate pushing 10 percent just three months before a presidential election, one word is on the lips of every politician here: jobs.
Socialist candidate Francois Hollande drew attention Tuesday to a shuttered steel mill. President Nicolas Sarkozy recently intervened to try to save a small ferry company, and is holding a high-profile meeting Wednesday with the country's biggest union leaders.
And far-right hopeful Marine Le Pen is denouncing the movement of jobs abroad, thanks to Europe's open borders.
Everyone is calling for a "re-industrialization" of France.
Europe's debt crisis and a looming recession are taking center stage in France ahead of elections in April and May. But much of the crisis debate involves discussions of technical concepts — bond yields, credit ratings, debt loads — that have creeped from the business pages to front pages but which many people still struggle to relate to their daily lives.
Not so with jobs. And politicians know that their ability to convince voters that they understand how important jobs are and that they have a plan to create them will be critical in the elections. In December, the national statistics agency announced that the unemployment rate creeped up to 9.7 percent in the third quarter.
In recent months, Sarkozy's government has tried to dissuade French businesses from eliminating jobs and even promised that state-supported companies would not lay off workers, though enforcement has been spotty.
For Wednesday, Sarkozy has organized a meeting with business and union leaders billed variously as a "jobs summit," a "crisis summit" and a "social protection summit." He has promised to unveil new reforms to jump-start the economy in the coming weeks, and his finance minister, Francois Baroin, said Tuesday that they would include plans to keep jobs in France and make it easier and cheaper for employers to hire.
In a sign of how seriously the president is taking the loss of any jobs — no matter how few — Sarkozy dramatically intervened earlier this month to try to save ferry operator SeaFrance, which a court has ordered liquidated. The small, loss-making company employs 880 people in France — hardly one of the national behemoths that Sarkozy has championed.
For his part, Hollande, who leads the polls, is hitting Sarkozy hard on the failure of a similar intervention two years ago at an ArcelorMittal steel mill.
Meeting Tuesday with former plant workers in Gandrange, in northeast France, Hollande said the now inactive mill stands as a symbol of Sarkozy's failures — "a symbol of the abandoning of employment as a priority, the symbol of the absence of an industrial policy and the symbol of not keeping (his) word." The Socialist candidate said it is up to the state to help such plants modernize.
In February 2008, the president promised to find a "solution" that would prevent the loss of nearly 600 jobs to restructuring at the plant. But in the spring of the following year, it closed.
Le Pen will also take up the jobs theme Wednesday at news conference. In recent days, she has criticized the Socialists and Sarkozy's conservative UMP party of only paying lip service to saving jobs, all while supporting European Union policies that guarantee open borders, which she says are bleeding France of jobs.
Cecile Brisson contributed to this report from Gandrange.