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French unemployment at 10-year low

French President Emmanuel Macron received a boost Thursday from figures showing unemployment at a 10-year low, but the 8.7-per cent rate is still much higher than in other European heavyweights.

The jobless indicator inched down by 0.1 point from the same period in 2018 to its lowest level since 2009, the national statistics institute INSEE said.

Macron, a pro-business centrist, has made cutting unemployment his main domestic priority and it has fallen — albeit gradually — from 9.4 per cent when he took office in May 2017.

One subset that did see a sharp drop this time was the “halo of unemployment,” which INSEE describes as those who “wish to work but are ‘classed’ as being inactive either because they are not immediately available to work (within two weeks) or because they are not actively seeking work.”

Their number fell by 89,000 on a 12-month comparison to 1.4 million.

France has suffered from chronic high unemployment for decades and its jobless rate is still more than double that of Britain, and far higher than in Germany, Europe’s other two major economies.

Unemployment in Germany, which has the biggest economy in Europe, hit its lowest rate since reunification in 1990 in April, with only 4.9 per cent of the workforce looking for a job.

British unemployment is at a 45-year low of 3.8 per cent despite the economic turmoil created by Brexit.

French workers benefit from higher levels of job protection, but the downside is that employers are more reluctant to hire because it is harder to shed staff when they want or need to.

The French economy has improved but it has also been held back by “yellow vest” protests that often target city centres on Saturdays, making shopping a hazardous activity at times.

In 2018, French gross domestic product (GDP) expanded by 1.5 per cent, down from 2.3 per cent in 2017 owing in part to weaker consumer demand.

In the first quarter of 2019, French GDP grew by a steady 0.3 per cent according data compiled by the European Union’s statistics service Eurostat.

British GDP rose by 0.5 per cent meanwhile, while in Germany, where business activity stalled in the second half of 2018, it gained 0.4 per cent.

Macron now wants to offer 5.0 billion euros ($5.6 billion) in tax cuts to those whose wages are at the low end of the scale in response to almost six months of protests over living standards by the anti-government “yellow vest” demonstrators.

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