, PARIs, Jul 15 – President Francois Hollande vowed to fight French “pessimism” in the face of a struggling economy, and acknowledged that the country’s rail network needed better maintenance, after a deadly derailment.
In an interview with leading television channels to mark Bastille Day, Hollande insisted the recovery had already started. France entered recession this year and has a record-high 3.26 million unemployed.
Deeply unpopular Hollande defended his first 14 months in office and, as polls show deep gloom among the French, said his goal was to give “new confidence” to the country.
“For years we have been the most pessimistic country in Europe, in the world even,” he told interviewers.
“There are countries at war that are more optimistic than we are.”
Hollande was speaking after attending the traditional Bastille Day military parade on the Champs Elysees.
But this year’s holiday was overshadowed by Friday’s rail accident on a regional line near Paris, which claimed six lives. Hollande promised to make upgrading outdated lines a priority.
“We must do much more to maintain traditional lines, existing lines,” Hollande said.
Opinion polls show the economy and jobs are the country’s top concerns, although Hollande said France was already through the worst of its economic troubles.
“The economic recovery is here,” he said, pointing to a pick-up in industrial production and a modest recovery in consumption.
But with France struggling to get its deficit under control, the president said he could not rule out tax increases to help balance the budget.
“We will make — we have made — savings (in spending) and I will increase taxes only if absolutely necessary, ideally as little as possible,” he said.
Hollande re-affirmed his promise to reverse the rise in unemployment by the end of the year, after the number of jobless in France hit a record 3.26 million.
“I am fighting” for jobs, Hollande said.
“There is the will, there is a strategy,” he said, promising 100,000 jobs for youth by the end of the year.
France would push ahead with controversial pension reforms expected in the autumn, he said. The plans have already led to calls from unions for general strikes.
“Everyone will be called on to make efforts,” he said, repeating that the number of working years required to receive full pension payments would likely increase.
Earlier Sunday, the traditional military parade unfolded under a sunny sky in Paris, with fighter jets flying overhead and troops marching to mark the storming of the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789, the start of the French Revolution.
The parade highlighted one of the few presidential decisions that has won widespread praise — the French military intervention in Mali earlier this year.
About 60 troops from Mali and a detachment from the UN peacekeeping force there led the march. They were joined by French troops who took part in the operation against Islamist rebels in the west African nation.
France’s surprise intervention in January helped Mali’s weak army by driving out the Islamist fighters who had taken over the country’s desert north. About 3,200 French troops remain in Mali, as it prepares for the first round of a presidential election on July 28.
“It was a victory for Africa, a victory against terrorism,” Hollande said.
Joining him at the parade were UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Mali’s interim president Dioncounda Traore and Croatian President Ivo Josipovic, whose country became the 28th member of the European Union on July 1.
Closer to home, Hollande said he was worried by the rise of the far-right National Front in opinion polls.
“When they say that they are going to chase out those who are not like us, those who are not French and even perhaps certain French people, it’s extremely serious,” he said.
Hollande also vowed to maintain a French ban on the controversial practice of fracking for shale gas, which he said presented too many environmental risks.
“As long as I am president, there were will be no exploration for shale gas,” Hollande said.
In a nod to efforts to cut government spending, the budget for this year’s parade was cut by 10-15 percent.
Even so, about 4,800 servicemen and women took part, along with 265 vehicles, 58 planes and 35 helicopters.