Employment: France makes grand plans for young jobless

The French national assembly yesterday approved plans to create 350,000 state-funded, service jobs for young people. The project, far grander than Labour's plans for British youngsters, aims to generate the "trades of tomorrow", not to create make-work jobs. But critics dismiss it as a nightmarish mixture of bureaucracy and idealism, John Lichfield reports from Paris.
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It will forever be called the "Loi Aubry", the Aubry law. For Martine Aubry, deputy prime minister, minister of employment and the daughter of Jacques Delors, it could be the crowning achievement, or the first serious failure, of a whirlwind political career.

The stakes may be almost as high for the Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin. Of all the economic ideas and promises on which he campaigned successfully in May, the youth employment plan is virtually alone in not having been diluted, delayed or abandoned.

From the point of view of the 600,000 young unemployed in France, the Loi Aubry is an instant public relations success. Applications for the first 40,000 para-teaching posts in state schools were invited last week. School boards have been inundated with inquiries. In Nantes, in western France, 7,000 young people applied for the 1,000 or so places.

Ms Aubry insists her plan is unlike any other youth employment scheme attempted anywhere in the world. It will, she says, generate a permanent, self-funding demand for new kinds of service jobs - assistant teachers, youth organisers, home computer trainers, re-cyclers of domestic waste, entertainers of old people and family conflict counsellors.

These, she explains, are the service "trades of tomorrow", replacing the skilled manufacturing and white-collar jobs dissolved by computerisation. When the initial five-year contracts run out, she expects many of the jobs to continue with local, private and charitable funding. This, Ms Aubry insists, could be self-financing: the money spent on youth organisers, for instance, would be saved in the reduced cost of vandalism and graffiti.

Her critics - on the right, in the unions, in the press - suggest this is a lot of hot air. The Aubry plan will have all the drawbacks of previous job- creation programmes, they say. It will destroy as many jobs as it creates; it will train youngsters to do jobs which will vanish as soon as the 80- per-cent government subsidy is withdrawn.

Pierre Lellouche, a Gaullist deputy from Paris, was the most scathing voice in the National Assembly debate. "At the moment when the entire world, even the Chinese Communist Party, is going the free-market route, France is heading in a super- antiquated direction," he said.

Michel Schifres in the conservative Le Figaro said the Aubry vision was a mixture of "idealism and bureaucracy, of Rousseau and Kafka". It was offering unemployed young people a "hobby, not a profession".

And yet there are several similarities with the pounds 3.5bn welfare-to-work programme announced in July by the Labour government in Britain, whose devotion to markets has been much praised by the right-wing in France.

Unlike the scheme announced by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, the French plan contains no element of coercion. French youngsters who fail to apply will not get their benefit reduced. Unlike the UK scheme, French youngsters gain no new training and education possibilities.

The Aubry plan is more generous than the British one, offering youngsters the pounds 125-a-week French minimum wage for five years. The Brown scheme offers a pounds 60 to pounds 75-a-week refund to employers who take on jobless youngsters for six months - with the same fond hope that the jobs will continue unaided afterwards.

Alternatively, British youngsters can earn slightly more than their state benefit if they take a six-month job in the voluntary sector. Like the French programme, the aim is to create "intermediate" jobs which benefit the community - not quite profitable enough for the private sector, not quite urgent enough for the public sector.

The success or failure of the two programmes may decide which of the two left-wing governments elected this summer seizes the intellectual and moral leadership of the European left. The British plan is tougher, drawing on workfare ideas from the US. The French plan is more thorough, allowing five years for the youngsters to acquire skills.