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Hollande courts the teacher vote

French presidential hopeful Francois Hollande is courting the teacher vote with a promise to recruit 60,000 new teachers - a reversal of staff cuts under President Sarkozy - and a reduction in the retirement age from 62 to 60.

Socialist Hollande, the frontrunner in the contest having beaten the right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round, has vowed to make the rich pay the highest price to help drag France out of its economic crisis, while promising to pump more money into schools and state- assisted jobs.

By scrapping some EUR29 billion (pound;24bn) worth of tax breaks for wealthier people introduced under Sarkozy, he said he could find EUR20bn to deal with the corrosion of French society: record unemployment, soaring youth jobless figures and an education system that has been shamed as one of the most unequal in Europe, where one in six young people leave with no qualifications.

Unemployment is at a 12-year high, with 2.8 million without jobs, and youth unemployment is around 22 per cent.

The electoral battleground is now being fought over France's middle class, such as teachers, nurses and social workers, who have low salaries but earn too much for French social benefits and too little for tax breaks.

Sarkozy plans to increase sales tax to help meet social welfare costs; the Socialists claim this will hit the middle class the hardest.

Under Sarkozy, France has seen a rise in the number of "second-chance" schools, created as part of an EU-wide project set up by the former French prime minister Edith Cresson when she was an EU commissioner.

The aim is to help French youngsters who have left school without any qualifications. There are currently around 100 across France, serving 12,000 students; the number of students attending une ecole de la deuxieme chance rose by 42 per cent last year.

Over a 10-month period, the second-chance students each do around eight three-week work placements in companies relevant to their career interest.

elizabeth.buie@tess.co.uk.

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