Hollande turns to robots, driverless cars to revive French industry

PARIS Thu Sep 12, 2013 12:54pm BST

1 of 3. France's President Francois Hollande (C) shakes hands with an humanoid robot 'Nao' from Aldebaran Robotics company as he visits an exhibition on French industrial design and technology at the Elysee Palace in Paris, September 12, 2013. At 2ndR, French Minister for Industrial Recovery Arnaud Montebourg.

Credit: Reuters/Charles Platiau

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PARIS (Reuters) - Francois Hollande laid out a 10-year roadmap on Thursday to revive French industry by promoting new technologies to drive job creation, but which offered little public money from stretched state coffers.

The Socialist president, whose 2014 national budget next month will focus on curbing spending, vowed to turn back what he called a 'lost decade' of conservative rule in which some 700,000 jobs fled domestic industries.

But the scheme will rely heavily on private investment and the government will act mostly as a coordinator to spur growth in 34 priority areas, from driverless cars to electric planes and a new generation of high-speed trains.

"France is a nation of inventors, pioneers and producers," Hollande said, citing France's role in previous centuries and decades in developing technologies from the steam engine to hot-air balloons and rechargeable batteries.

"We have a duty to remain so," he added, nonetheless insisting the plan was not a return to the so-called "dirigiste" state-directed industrial policies of the 1960s and 1970s.

France's new Public Investment Bank will be on hand to offer credit for innovation - no amount was specified - but officials said they hoped to match every euro of public money invested with 10 euros raised from private investors.

State-appointed "industrial officers" will press firms to work together and develop successors to French projects of the past such as the supersonic Concorde or high-speed TGV train - both fruits of state-funded research plans.

With unemployment stuck above 10 percent and the government forced this week to cut its 2014 growth forecast, Hollande is fighting to lift his approval ratings above 30 percent. He hopes such a determined display of optimism will help raise hopes for the future among the French.

But while officials say 475,000 jobs can be created or preserved if their roadmap is followed over 10 years, current data remains grim, with 49,600 industrial jobs lost in the year to August, according to the INSEE statistics office.

DRIVERLESS CARS, ELECTRIC PLANES

Most new designs presented to Hollande at the exhibition were built by industrial giants such as car-maker Renault (RENA.PA), automotive parts group Valeo (VLOF.PA) or aerospace giant EADS EADFI.UL.

Flanked by Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg, Hollande was shown robot technology, models of an electric plane built by EADS, a driverless car being developed by Renault-Nissan and an ultra-fuel efficient vehicle being tested in Peugeot's laboratories that would retail at 15,000 euros ($20,000).

At present both Peugeot and Renault are struggling to maintain production in France due to high labour costs and employment laws that make it tricky to adjust staffing levels.

Montebourg has not lacked ideas to stimulate industry, for example creating an online tool to help businesses that have moved abroad re-calculate production costs in France.

But clear successes are elusive, despite his declaration after 10 months on the job that his mediation with vulnerable companies has saved some 60,000 threatened industrial jobs.

More jobs are still leaving France than coming home. Figures from March showed that for 44 companies which had returned production to France since 2009, 267 had outsourced activities, according to the Observatoire de l'Investissement.

(Editing by Mark John and Catherine Evans)

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