PARIS (Reuters Life!) - With a touch of blush and some judiciously applied eye makeup, France's main unemployment agency is trying to lure jobless women back into the workforce by offering them a taxpayer-funded day of pampering.
The makeover drive, launched this week by the Pole Emploi agency, aims to boost the confidence of women who have been out of work for years and too busy -- or simply too discouraged -- to worry about their appearance, its organizers told Reuters.
"This is about giving them back their pluck. Makeup changes your life simply and quickly," said Regine Ferrere, a makeup artist who supervised the makeover studio. "Touching people and talking to them is far better than giving them a pill or sending them to the psychologist's office."
At the first makeover day, 10 women gave themselves over to the care of professional makeup artists and stylists. The advice they received was equal parts beauty tips, pep talk, and motivational slogans for job seekers.
"The skin needs to be perfectly clear. With the eyes, you express your sparkle, and with the mouth you express pleasure," one makeup artist told a tired-looking unemployed lady, who listened intently from a sofa.
Nearby, an unemployed photographer dressed in black tried on colorful scarves while a giant portrait of Marilyn Monroe looked on. "The mallard blue looks great on you," Cynthia Cohen an image advisor in charge of the experiment, told her.
Some of the women chosen to take part in the experiment spoke of the challenge of raising children, looking for work and maintaining a "chic" look, all at the same time.
"It's unpleasant to be out of work," said Latifa Behali, a concierge in her 40s. "I've been looking (for a job) for two years and sometimes I get discouraged, I get down. I take care of my three children, but aside from that I let myself go."
Laure Cerene, a 28-year-old designer, said she had been looking for work for more than a year: "It's (the makeover) a pure bonus for me ...What is most difficult is the waiting time after an interview, and there are so few offers out there."
With nearly 1 in 10 French workers unemployed -- third quarter data showed joblessness at 9.7 percent -- France is struggling to invigorate its labor market by bringing the hardest hit groups into the workforce.
Youths aged 18-25, of whom nearly a quarter are out of work, are one problem area. But equally important is bringing those who have been out of work for years.
The makeover initiative, which is backed by a range of sponsors, is one effort to target women whose careers go off-track after having children. Pascal Dumont, head of a Pole Emploi unit in Paris, said finding work was a holistic experience, involving all parts of a person.
"Skills are the main reason people find jobs, but (appearance) is a plus. The first impression one makes on an employer is very important," he told Reuters, adding that such initiatives were a bridge to the private sector.
If the initiative proved a success, he said the agency plans to hold pampering days once per month involving more women, and eventually to invite men to join as well.
But for Jean-Francois Yon, spokesman for a rights group that represents the jobless and under-employed, the makeover initiative was little more than a "gimmick."
"What the vast majority of people need is not a makeover but a decent welcome and steady aid for training and searching for jobs," he said. "Everything else is a gimmick, though it could have some utility for very isolated people."
Writing by Nick Vinocur; editing by Paul Casciato