Lockdown pushes French unemployment to 11-year low in first quarter

PARIS (Reuters) - French unemployment fell in the first quarter to an 11-year low as people without work were unable to seek jobs once France entered a coronavirus lockdown, the INSEE stats agency said on Thursday.

The jobless rate fell to 7.8% from 8.1% in the fourth quarter, hitting its lowest since late 2008, INSEE’s quarterly unemployment survey found.

France’s nationwide lockdown, which started on March 17, reduced the number of those normally classified as unemployed by making it impossible for them to look for work, INSEE said.

The International Labour Organisation defines being unemployed as not working, but being available to work and actively seeking a job, which was nearly impossible in many professions during the last two weeks of March due to the lockdown.

In the period before the lockdown, the unemployment rate was 8.2%, INSEE said.

With large swathes of the economy shut down, the lockdown has plunged the euro zone’s second-biggest economy into its worst recession since modern economic records began in 1949.

The government has sought to prevent a wave of permanent lay-offs by reimbursing companies 70% of the gross wages of workers they put on furlough.

As of Wednesday, there were 12.4 million people benefiting from such state-subsidised furloughs, nearly two-thirds of the private sector workforce, according to Labour Ministry data.

After the lockdown was lifted on Monday, the government is eager for companies to bring back workers and is looking at reducing how much it reimburses firms using the furlough scheme.

Reporting by Leigh Thomas; Editing by Clarence Fernandez