François Nevers was looking forward to a great career. In 2004, the trained academic took over a program director's position at a public radio station. He was given a temporary, six-month contract, which was extended once. But one-and-a-half years later, just before he was supposed to be given the permanent position he had been promised, 24-year-old Nevers was given the sack.
There's a method to this kind of abrupt halting of promising careers. The radio station, which is formally owned by the French Foreign Ministry and employs roughly 800 people, regularly shows its young technicians and writers the door -- just to turn around and re-hire them with cheap temporary contracts after a mandatory six-month waiting period.
This is the everyday reality of an entire generation of French citizens. For many young workers, entering the job market means accepting temporary contacts, working multiple jobs and going through regular periods of unemployment. This is as true of manual workers as it is of people with a background in engineering or academic studies.
Often it takes as many as eight years to arrive at a permanent position. Almost a quarter of those under 25 are unemployed, one of the highest youth unemployment rates in Europe. But the problem isn't just limited to France -- youth unemployment has reached record levels all over Europe. For its part, Germany has fared somewhat better, with a total youth unemployment rate of 15 percent, putting it at 16th place worldwide.
Curing the French malady
With his legislation, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin wanted to cure the French malady all by himself while scoring points against Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, his main contender for the office of president. Now it looks as if the prime minister's proposed reform of the labor market will be vanquished by student resistance and the categorical "non" the trade unions have given the law.
In November, the disenfranchised youth of Paris's socio-economically challenged banlieues took to the streets, but now grade school and university students are also getting restless. Hardly a day goes by without ever more violent mass protests and clashes in the street. Now that even president Jacques Chirac seems unwilling to defend the reform proposal, Villepin himself is fearing for his job.
And yet he meant well. His "Contrat Prèmiere Embauche" (first-time employment contract) was supposed to provide a greater incentive for French employers to begin hiring people under 26. The incentive consisted of the right to fire young workers at any point during a two-year probationary period, without having to give any reason. Above all, the CPE was meant to help the poorly trained youths in the suburbs, where the youth unemployment rate can run as high as 50 percent.
The country is badly in need of reforms: The chronic high unemployment rate (roughly 9 percent) can at least partly be traced to an outmoded education system and some of the most rigid employment laws in Europe. In addition, the country has an untouchable 35-hour working week and people tend to retire earlier than in other parts of Europe.
The result has been a split of French society into two classes: a class of permanently employed workers with extensive social benefits and a class of young temporary workers with no future to look forward to, workers who live in constant fear of losing their jobs.
So far, the government has failed in its attempts to break the impasse. And it's certainly with some envy that French politicians look to their neighbors, where reform proposals don't automatically lead to general strikes and rioting. "The Germans have a project that is about as different from our CPE as one drop of water from another," said French Trade Minister Christine Lagarde.
A German model?
In fact, the parties forming Germany's governing coalition -- the conservative Christian Democrats and the left-leaning Social Democrats -- have agreed to implement a reform plan that, in many ways, seems to be even more radical than Villepin's. The proposed legislation would extend the probation period from six months to two years. Currently in Germany, it is difficult to fire workers once they have been on the job for six months. The reform would also enable employers to fire young workers and then re-hire them six months later. Even then, the rules would apply again and the employer would have the option of firing the employee again -- just as happened to François Nevers.
People are running amok on the streets of France, but in Germany, the same issue has at best sparked a modest parliamentary debate. Moreover, a whole range of radical changes have already been implemented in Germany in the past few years. Now, German employers can hire workers under fixed-term contracts for up to two years; employers starting a new business can limit employment contracts for up to four years. Employers can also use interns, temporary workers and outsourcing. Additionally, a change was also made to Germany's employee protection law that makes it very difficult for businesses to fire any permanent workers if they have five workers or more. In 2004, the government raised that threshold to ten workers.
In France, however, the debate continues to rage and the country's demonstrators show no signs of quieting down. Last Friday, Villepin met with the leaders of the five most important trade unions. But his "round-table" dialogue yielded no results, and, on Tuesday, workers across the country laid down their tools in a general strike.