John Lichfield: Our Man In Paris

Scandal of a system that forces graduates into unpaid work

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The Socialist-run town hall in Paris has come up with a revolutionary idea. It plans to pay its workers. The town hall has decided to give wages - or pocket money, less than a third of the French minimum wage - to 200 employees who previously worked for nothing.

In France, such employees are called stagiaires, because they are given not a job, but an unpaid temporary position or a stage.

In Britain, we call them "work experience" positions. They can be a useful way of gaining a sense of the workplace; or a toehold in a chosen profession. They can also be a swindle. For young people in France, including well-qualified young people, it can seem that all the world is a stage.

Emilie Maume, 26, is a veteran stagiaire. She got a "very good" (the highest score) in her baccalauréat at the age of 17. She graduated from the élite Paris college Science-Po two years ago. She has been looking for a job in the world of arts or cultural administration. Her parents are teachers in Dreux, west of Paris, with no connections.

Emilie has been bounced from unpaid stage to unpaid stage. She has been treated as a flunkey rather than an up-and-coming administrator. The pinnacle of her career so far has been to serve petits fours to the actor Bruce Willis at a reception at the Culture Ministry.

With the help of a journalist, Emilie has written a book - Profession Stagiaire (Ramsay) - in which she denounces the failure of the French education system to connect with the world of work. She also denounces, eloquently, the selfishness of a French business community which protects its own privileges, fences out the young and offers opportunity only to the well-connected.

Why do you think there are so many young French people in London (300,000 and counting)? Emilie Maume points out that tertiary education in France produces 300,000 "general" graduates a year. French business recruits 30,000 graduates a year. Result: misery, or at least an enormous frustration and waste of talent. Emilie sums up: "I played the [education] game and I won. But someone forgot to give me my prize."

My own son, only 16, found a stage in Munich with a training company. He was keen to improve his German. The first job that he was asked to do in Munich was to tidy the office cupboards. He opened the first cupboard with a sense of foreboding, expecting to find something like his own bedroom. The shelves were beautifully tidy. He opened the second cupboard. Just the same.

Was this a joke, a form of office teasing? No, these were German cupboards and not regarded as tidy enough. "How do you tidy up after Germans?" he asked us.

To be fair to his temporary employers in Munich, Charles had a wonderful time once he had tidied the cupboards. (He colour-coded all the pencils and pens and tied everything in rubber bands, which was regarded as a great improvement.) He was allowed to participate in the running of a busy little training agency. His German improved. He was very happy. When he left, the company insisted on giving him a sealed envelope - "not to be opened before Paris". He protested that he was not supposed to be paid. They insisted. When Charles reached Paris, he opened his Munich envelope. It contained a very generous €130 (£90).

Following recent complaints - including Emilie Maume's book - French abusers of stagiaires, are starting to offer minimal pay for some jobs.

The Paris town hall, with its Socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, employs 3,000 stagiaires a year. Last week it announced it would pay the 200 who worked for three months or more. They would be paid 30 per cent of the French minimum wage, in other words €94 for a full week's work of 35 hours. Very generous, M. Delanoe.

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