French youth want jobs - with security

Masses protested a bill that would make it easier to get hired - and fired.

When Corinne, a 27-year-old Parisienne, earned her Masters degree in bilingual journalism four years ago, she had high hopes for her career as an international reporter.

Today, after an endless series of unpaid internships, short-term contracts, freelance jobs, and spells of unemployment, she has almost given up on her dreams.

"Being an intern in France is a real profession," says Corinne, who did not want to give her last name for fear her difficulty in finding a proper job might deter potential employers. "You can keep doing it until you are 35."

The government has pinpointed France's hallowed job protection laws, which deter employers from creating new posts, as an obstacle to bringing young people like Corinne into the workforce. But its efforts to weaken those laws have run into fierce public opposition.

Youth unemployment in France, among the highest in Europe, stands at 23 percent, more than double the US rate. Joblessness was one of the sparks that lit the fires that young rioters set in Parisian suburbs last November. Five years after finishing their studies, more than a fifth of French twentysomethings still do not have a job.

Yet a government scheme to encourage firms to hire more young people drew hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets of 160 towns and cities in France Tuesday, amid widespread fears that the plan will undermine the country's traditionally high levels of job security.

"Young people are being made to choose between a precarious job and no job at all," complained Charlotte Basquin, a law student in Paris, as she prepared to join a demonstration against the government.

The trouble is that the way the government's plan makes it more attractive for an employer to hire 18- to 25-year-olds is by making it easier to fire them. The "first job contract" effectively creates a two-year trial period, during which a company could lay off a "first job" employee without having to give a reason. Most French workers currently undergo a probationary period of only one month.

The scheme, which senators in parliament's upper house approved Monday as part of a larger bill, is the latest move in the government's battle against its top-priority problem, a 9.6 percent unemployment rate.

Last August, the government introduced a similar contract that the smallest firms, employing less than 20 people, can offer to recruits of any age.

But it is unpopular. A poll published this week in the daily "Liberation" found that 58 percent of voters thought the government should withdraw this plan.

The reforms are popular, though, with many employers, who say the lengthy and expensive procedures they normally have to follow if they want to slim down their workforce make them wary of hiring new employees.

"It's a nightmare," says Bertrand Fredenucci, who runs a small website design firm in Paris that he founded six years ago. "The result is that you try to avoid hiring if you can. You would rather be overstretched."

He welcomes the new, more flexible contracts that he says allow him to adapt to a fast-changing market that is hard to predict. "I don't always know my needs in advance," he says. "This way I can bet on the future."

Few French employees, however, are accustomed to betting on the future. Rather, they have come to expect the strong job protection offered by the open-ended contracts that nearly 90 percent of the workforce enjoys.

The problem, economists say, is that what is good for those in established jobs is not good for those trying to get into the labor market. Three quarters of the new posts created in France each year are subject to short-term contracts ranging up to only six months' duration.

"Today, the logic is to say that we must do everything to prevent unemployment, so companies should not be able to lay workers off," Laurence Parisot, head of the French employers' federation argued recently. "But the real question should be how do we make getting a job easier?"

"Explaining that job security means getting a job, not keeping your job, is a hard sell," says Olivier Blanchard, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston and adviser to the French government. "If you have an open ended contract you are not eager to give anything up," he adds. "It may be a catastrophe for the economy generally, but people care most about their own jobs."

That, Professor Blanchard suggests, is why Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is taking small steps to reform the labor market. The new contracts, he says, "should be seen as one measure on the way to a more holistic and complete reform" that will be politically difficult to push through.

Opinions differ over whether the current reforms will make much of a dent in France's 2.6 million unemployment rate.

One recent survey found that the contract introduced last August had led to the creation of 330,000 jobs, one third of which would not have been created without the new law.

But critics wonder how long those jobs will last, and whether the new hires will not be fired before their two-year probation period is over. "Even if you are very good at your job, the temptation for a company to say it prefers to hire someone cheaper [when your trial period is up] is very strong," Blanchard worries.

Of the employers who hired workers under the new scheme, 43 percent said they hoped to keep new hires beyond two years, 9 percent said they did not intend to do so, and 48 percent were uncommitted, according to a poll carried out in January.

Mr. Fredenucci says he certainly expects his new hires to be with his company in two years' time, and plans to hire half of the 10 new recruits he will need this year on the new contracts.

Even if his job does not last more than two years, says salesman Matthieu Mervoyer, one of Fredenucci's new employees, he is happy. "If the new contract had not existed, I would not have got a job here," he explains. "It has helped me a lot, and if I sell well I have nothing to fear."

That attitude is shared by Ingrid Le Henanff, a 24-year-old psychologist who has spent most of her time since she graduated last June working on weekly contracts at call centers.

"The new contract is not new when you compare it with the sort of contracts I've been given," she says. "I can be sacked whenever my boss wants. Even if the 'first job contract' is an ejector seat, at least it would give me experience in my field. If I were offered one, I would take it."

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