PARIS More people were out of job in France in March than at any other time in the past, data on Thursday showed, a bleak record that cast new doubt on government promises to reverse the unemployment trend by year-end.
The new 3.225 million record, an 11.5 percent annual increase, is a symbolic blow to Socialist President Francois Hollande, whose approval ratings have sunk to the lowest of any modern French leader in recent months as jobless claims soared.
It is also likely to add to a growing debate in the euro zone about whether the bloc has gone too far in an austerity drive meant to fight its debt crisis, on a day where Spain also announced record-high unemployment.
Battling to make good on his promise to reverse the rise in unemployment by the end of this year, Hollande has launched subsidized youth-job schemes and pushed through a reform to make hiring and firing slightly easier.
Yet the number of registered job seekers in mainland France rose by 1.2 percent in March, marking a 23rd straight monthly rise and reaching the worst level since records began in January 1996, the labor ministry said.
France's unemployment rate as calculated by International Labour Organisation methodology has risen to 10.6 percent.
With a wave of industrial layoffs taking effect, the March jobless figure of 3,224,600 not only soared further above the 3 million level hit last August but beat the previous all-time record of 3,195,500 set in January 1997.
Hollande on Thursday reaffirmed his goal to reverse the rising trend, calling on his government to combine with industry and other players to use all means possible to create jobs.
"Everything the government does, in every ministry, must be to continue to strengthen the battle for jobs," he told a news conference during a state visit to China. "I want all the French people to unite behind this one national priority."
In a satirical dig at Hollande, steelworkers in eastern France erected a marble tombstone to his election promises on Wednesday as ArcelorMittal ISPA.AS permanently shut two blast furnaces many had hoped he could save.
In a bitter irony, the only place to have announced any major hiring plan recently is the national employment agency Pole Emploi, which said last month it would hire 2,000 extra staff by September.
Auto-makers, once major job-providers, have announced thousands of staff cuts, with PSA Peugeot Citroen (PEUP.PA) scrapping more than 10,000 domestic jobs and rival Renault (RENA.PA) aiming to cut 7,500 posts in France by 2016.
The labour ministry data are the most frequently reported jobs indicator in the country, although they are not prepared according to ILO standards nor expressed as a percentage.
The March data also showed that the average time that jobseekers spend on the jobless roster hit a new multi-year high of 485 days, a level that was last reached in April 2000.
France is not an isolated case in the euro zone, nor is it the worst hit, with Spanish unemployment reaching 6.2 million people in the first quarter. In the bloc as a whole, joblessness has risen steadily throughout most of the financial crisis to reach 12.0 percent this year.
France has been pushing its euro zone partners, in particular EU power house Germany, for months to do more to boost growth and relax budget deficit targets.
"At a time when France seems to be burying itself in recession, there is clearly a need to go further down the path of structural reforms, for the sake of future employment," said ING economist Julien Manceaux.
"However, current figures might increase the government's efforts to stop the European emphasis on austerity."
(Graphic by Leigh Thomas; Additional reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey and Leigh Thomas; editing by Ron Askew)