Jobs, ecology key to France's $110 billion virus rescue plan

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France's Prime Minister Jean Castex leaves after the weekly cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Wednesday, July 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

PARIS – France’s new prime minister on Wednesday laid out 100 billion euros ($110 billion) in new spending to rescue the virus-battered economy from its worst crisis since World War II.

The money will notably go to creating jobs for young people facing the worst employment prospects in years, reducing French carbon emissions, and protecting from collapse the small businesses that give rural France its charm.

“The crisis highlighted our difficulties and our failures,” Prime Minister Jean Castex told lawmakers. But despite more than 30,000 virus-related deaths and massive strain on France’s once-renowned public health care system, he said, “We held on.”

Critics from left and right have slammed the government’s handling of the crisis, and legislators pushed back after Castex detailed his priorities to the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament.

The new virus rescue plan will include 20 billion euros for climate-related investment, including wider use of electric bikes, stimulus for local food suppliers, urban renewal and mass renovation of older buildings.

After a fuel tax hike unleashed the yellow vest protest movement against economic injustice and hampered President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to curb emissions, Castex said: “It is up to us to reconcile the environmental transition with purchasing power.”

Another 40 billion euros will go to overhauling strategic French manufacturing sites, he said.

French small businesses fear mass bankruptcies in the months to come because of the sharp drop-off in tourism, and among measures to support them is a new ban on new shopping malls in French suburbs, Castex said.

He also promised aid to businesses that hire people under the age of 25.

After pledging 8 billion euros for public hospitals earlier this week, Castex announced another 6 billion euros Wednesday for the health care system, which is among the world’s best but was ill-prepared for the pandemic and suffered mask and testing shortages.

As France notes a slight recent rise in infections weeks after reopening its economy, Castex pledged a “necessary development of mask usage and an intensification of our testing policy,” but did not give details. Macron on Tuesday announced that masks will be required in indoor public spaces by Aug. 1.

Whatever happens with the virus, Castex said jobs will be the government’s “absolute priority” in the coming months. The aid package will include “massive investment” in training or retraining for those whose jobs disappear for good because of fallout from global virus lockdowns and ensuing recessions.

About 40 billion of the 100 billion euro package could be funded by an EU recovery fund that’s under discussion with other European Union countries, according to a French presidential official.

Castex said the government still wants to pursue retirement reforms that unleashed weeks of strikes and protests last year and were put on hold because of the virus, but he didn’t set out a calendar.