Chirac launches human export drive to tackle unemployment

President Jacques Chirac has offered a piece of sound, if startling, advice to the one in four French youngsters who cannot find a job - leave the country.

"You shouldn't be scared of going abroad," the President told a group of teenagers at the high-tech Cyber Jeune employment exchange in the Paris suburbs.

The Japanese, he said, were crying out for French pastry-cooks and the Belgians were always looking for bakers.

Mr Chirac, who spent part of his own youth as a bellhop at a Howard Johnson hotel in the United States, was beginning a "crusade for youth employment" in France, where 24.9 per cent of under-25-year-olds have no work.

The President said all possible methods, public and private, must be mobilised to generate opportunities for the young.

At the same time, he said, the French were far more reluctant than other nations - twice as reluctant as the Germans; three times as reluctant as the Italians - to consider seeking their fortune abroad.

Mr Chirac is both right and wrong. The statistics confirm that French people of all ages are much less interested in living, or even travelling, abroad than other nationalities. There were only 2.5 per cent of French citizens living abroad in 1995 - the lowest expatriate percentage in the European Union.

In a sense, this is not surprising. France is the most popular holiday and retirement destination for other nations, and the French are as keen as everyone else on living in France.

But there has already been a surge in emigration by French youngsters in the last four to five years, according to the government's Migration Office.

Unfortunately, those who are leaving tend to be well-qualified and enterprising, the kind who could probably find jobs in France if they wanted to.

The most popular destination is Germany, followed by Britain - suggesting that young French professionals are taking up the EU promise of a single market in people, as well as goods.

A recent study in the Nouvel Observateur suggested that many of them chose to go abroad because the taxes were lower and the life-style freer.

But Mr Chirac's advice is probably of less value to the under-educated and aimless youngsters who live in the employment-starved suburbs of Paris and other large cities, where the youth unemplyment figure can reach as high as 80 per cent.

What, one wonders, would be the reaction if they began to apply in large numbers for jobs as pastry-cooks in Japan?

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