February 5, 2015 / 2:31 PM / 5 years ago

Hollande taps Charlie Hebdo spirit for 'national unity' drive

PARIS (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande sought on Thursday to capitalize on a sense of national unity inspired by last month’s Islamist attacks in Paris and announced a new public service job scheme and initiatives in housing and education.

French President Francois Hollande leaves after a news conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris February 5, 2015. REUTERS/Francois Mori/Pool

Since the attacks, Hollande’s poll ratings - pushed to a historic low of 13 percent by stubbornly low unemployment and by a struggling economy - have doubled.

In a news conference marking the mid-point of an often chaotic five-year presidency, Hollande said he and France had been “transformed” by three days in which 17 people were killed in attacks on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish shop.

“The French turned out in the streets because they believed in their country,” he said of mass homages to the victims across France, including a 1.5-million-strong march in Paris.

“Now the government and I must ensure that spirit remains, to make our democracy stronger and fairer,” Hollande said.

Giving no details on cost, he said up to 160,000 places would be created by June for adults under the age of 26 to do eight months of public service paid at 573 euros ($650) a month.

After Prime Minister Manuel Valls last month acknowledged that France’s poor lived under a form of social and racial “apartheid”, Hollande said housing policy and other means would be used to tackle ghettos around many cities.

More resources would be thrown into education to help failing pupils and ensure that even nursery age children had mastered basic French, Hollande said.

“The French language is essential for living in France,” he said.

France has a strongly secular school system and refuses to collect data on ethnicity or to consider affirmative action aimed at helping minorities.

Speaking minutes before he headed to Ukraine for a joint diplomatic mission with Germany’s Angela Merkel aimed at easing the stand-off with Russia, Hollande said security threats would not deter France from pursuing interventions from Iraq to Mali.

Elected in May 2012, he has twice reshuffled his government, had his public image knocked by revelations of an affair with an actress and has faced repeated run-ins with the left of his Socialist party over his economic reform efforts.

The 60-year-old leader failed to give a direct answer to a question on whether France would stick to a commitment to bring its public deficit down to 3 percent of output, a promise to European partners which France has repeatedly broken.

Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander, Nicholas Vinocur, Brian Love; Editing by Louise Ireland

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