As soon as she walked into the 8 a.m. interview, Stephanie Martinez knew her chances of landing the job as a department store sales clerk were minimal. Five other candidates were there too, vying to answer the same questions.
As Martinez left an hour later, she saw the next six candidates arrive. In all, some 100 people were interviewed for the part-time job. Martinez doesn't know who got it, but it wasn't she.
Martinez, 25, lives with disappointments these days: the bookstore that never called back, the Internet research job that was already filled, the software company that said she had to start as an intern at $333 a month.
Martinez, a student at the prestigious Sorbonne, wonders if she will ever get a job. "I feel trapped," she said. "When you've worked hard and you're motivated, they should give you a chance. They don't."
Martinez and millions of people like her in France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere in Europe are the left-behind in the continent's economic revival.
In the last few years, the European economy has virtually reinvented itself. Corporations have modernized and merged. Governments have reduced budget deficits and deregulated key industries. This year, 11 European nations joined in creating a single currency, the euro.
But Europe's economic boom is unlike that of the United States in one crucial respect: Unemployment remains stubbornly high. As European and other finance ministers gathered in Washington last week for conferences leading up to the International Monetary Fund's annual meeting starting today, the IMF issued a forecast that the average jobless rate in the 15-nation European Union this year will be 9.1 percent -- or more than double the 4.3 percent rate predicted for the United States.
Sixteen million people in the EU are looking for work and not finding it -- a problem that ultimately threatens to undermine the continent's aspirations of being a global economic superpower.
Unemployment "is the Achilles' heel of Europe," said Thomas Mayer of Goldman Sachs in Frankfurt, Germany. "Europe will not be a giant economic engine like the United States is for the world if we don't address this problem."
In the past five years of economic expansion, 11.5 million new jobs have been created in the United States. In the European Union, with a population 40 percent larger, 3.6 million jobs were added, and many of those were in just two countries -- Britain and the Netherlands. Germany and Italy have fewer jobs today than they did in 1993, France barely more.
To Mayer and many other experts, the explanation is simple: It costs companies too much to create jobs here, and employment law is so protective of workers that businesses are reluctant to hire.
In Germany's textile industry, for instance, payroll taxes and fringe benefits add 70 percent to the average worker's salary, bringing it up to $22.60 an hour. As a result, the vast majority of German clothing companies have moved their operations to Eastern and Central Europe where they employ Czech or Polish workers for far less money.
Measures originally intended to shelter workers from the pain of layoffs have had the reverse effect of discouraging companies from hiring people. Bosses are wary of adding workers who will be hard to shed if business turns sour.
Large scale layoffs in France must be approved by a special administrative court and can be reversed even years later. In Germany, employee work councils must approve layoffs and can appeal to a labor court, a process that can take more than a year. And if the company loses, it must take the worker back and pay all the costs.
Such barriers to job growth in Europe were singled out at Saturday's meeting in Washington of finance ministers and central bank governors of the Group of Seven industrial nations. Their communique specifically urged the 11 countries using the euro currency to adopt "macroeconomic and structural policies aimed at strengthening growth and employment over the medium term."
In a few ways, European governments have begun to introduce more flexible labor laws. Employers in high-unemployment regions of Italy have recently been allowed to do more part-time hiring. In Germany, rules have been loosened to allow stores to stay open later at night and on weekends.
But while increased competition and modernization are taking hold in corporate Europe, governments by and large are doing little to loosen rules that make it harder for people to find work.
Europe's four largest economies -- Germany, Britain, France and Italy -- are led by parties of the left whose centrist prime ministers have enacted pro-business policies, with varying degrees of success. But only Britain, where unemployment is at its lowest level since 1980, has battled successfully against joblessness.
French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema, under pressure from either their parties' left wing or leftist partners in government, have failed so far to propose fundamental changes in hiring or firing rules.
"European politicians basically know what they should do. But changing the structure of the labor market means taking unpopular measures that could have negative consequences in the short term," said Lorenzo Codogno, head of European economics for Bank of America in London.
Behind the millions of unemployed is another veritable army: the underemployed, people who are whiling away their time in university or part-time work because they can't get, or believe they can't get, a regular job. Unemployment is high among all age groups, but it is particularly acute among young people. One-third of young Italians, for instance, are jobless even without counting those in school.
"If you ask me, they keep people here for a long time on purpose because they know there is no work out there," said Leonardo Songini, 26, a biology student in Rome.
The only kind of employment that is on the rise is temporary work. The number of people working for Manpower, Europe's largest temporary employer, has risen nearly 20 percent in each of the last two years to 900,000 today.
But even with widespread use of temporaries, payrolls are still smaller in Europe than in the United States. For instance, a study by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. said that Toys R Us stores in France employ sales forces 30 percent smaller than comparable-size stores in the United States.
Jean-Yves Loye, 52, would like very much to find a job as a salesperson. A former traveling salesman, he has worked only intermittently since 1991. He lives on $410 a month in government aid.
"Financially I'm dead. They've even disconnected my phone," he said.
Loye and his wife have separated, in part because of tension over his lack of work, and he does not know how he can help support his 15-year-old son. "If they lowered taxes here, unemployment rates would fall," he said.
In poll after poll, Europeans rank unemployment as the worst problem facing their nation. Seventy to 80 percent of Germans put unemployment -- 4 million Germans are jobless -- at the top of the list, and they are not optimistic that things will get better.
When he was elected one year ago, Schroeder told the German people he should be measured by how well he fought unemployment. His current low popularity -- and the string of defeats suffered by his Social Democratic Party in recent state elections -- reflects his lack of success so far. "Many people believe that [political] parties are not able to solve this problem because it is still there after so many years," said Dieter Roth, head of the German polling institute Forschungsgruppe Wahlen.
Economic growth has picked up steam in Europe in the last year, and unemployment in the EU has come down a bit. In France, the jobless rate recently fell from 11.3 percent to 11.2 percent.
But unless Europe makes fundamental changes to its labor laws, the impact of a more vibrant economy on its ranks of unemployed will be limited, business experts say. A study by Mayer of Goldman Sachs found that the number of jobs increases more slowly in Europe than in the United States even when the two economies expand at the same pace.
Special correspondents Sarah Delaney in Rome and Timm Gossing in Berlin contributed to this report.
CAPTION: JOBLESS IN EUROPE (This chart was not available)
CAPTION: OUT OF WORK (This graphic was not available)