At first glance, the French instruction in this Parisian classroom looks ordinary. Students learn the basics: verb conjugation, pronunciation, and how to make yourself understood.
But learning the language isn't the end goal for the 20-odd young adults who come here every week.
“I want to get a job in a library but there’s just one problem – my French,” says Mohammed, a soft-spoken, Moroccan-born 24-year old. Like the rest of his classmates, Mohammed comes to this espace dynamique d’insertion, or EDI, called Le Tipi to brush up on not only his French but on other things he may have missed in school – math and reading, plus confidence and follow-through.
And while EDIs, a regional initiative similar to America’s vocational training programs, have shown a fairly good success rate of getting young adults between the ages of 16 and 25 into the professional world, the French government is looking to do more – by getting the military in on the job-training action. A new program called voluntary military service, or SMV, is set to put 1,000 young people into the hands of the French Army to learn not weapons training but educational and life skills.
The military's program comes at a time when France’s unemployment statistics have gone under the microscope. Just last week, it was announced that France’s joblessness rate rose for the third straight month, translating to 3.5 million people without work. For youth, the numbers are even more staggering – 23.7 percent are jobless, compared to 7.2 percent in neighboring Germany.
The state has allocated 30 million euros to the SMV program, which has an experimental phase that ends in September 2017. It has been implemented to a certain extent in France's overseas territories since 1961 with much success: 80 percent of participants successfully enter into the job market after completing their year of service.
SMV centers around three basic principles: general social skills, mastering basic learning comprehension, and creating a professional plan in order to re-renter the job market. Participants will be required to live together on the base during their one year together.
“Things like discipline, clean-cut haircuts, how to interact with others and respecting authority … these are all positive things that employers tell us they appreciate,” says Lt. Gen. Bruno Clément-Bollée, who is heading the program.
SMV is just one of a number of initiatives that the state has on the burner. Following the release of the dismal unemployment figures, the Socialist government has vowed to create 100,000 state-sponsored jobs. And it is offering a tax incentive for small businesses that take on young apprentices. President François Hollande has said that if he can’t get the unemployment figures down, he won’t run for re-election in 2017.
While tackling unemployment may be the overarching goal of SMV, the French Army says the impetus for implementing the program was the terrorist attacks on Paris’s Charlie Hebdo offices and at a kosher grocer in January.
“The trigger was absolutely the events of Jan. 7 to 9,” says Gen. Clément-Bollée. “There was so much discussion about education and kids left behind, we thought, what can the military do to help?”
That doesn't mean putting a Kalashnikov in the hands of disenfranchised, uneducated youth, he adds. Clément-Bollée says the program “will not attract future terrorists” and that the program is not an “underhanded way of recruiting youth into the military.” In fact, there is no weaponry or combat training involved.
However, he concedes that if some participants choose that path, he sees no reason to stop them. The military is in high demand for new recruits, especially since the terrorist attacks have necessitated more soldiers within national borders. The military has deployed 7,000 troops across the country and says it wants to recruit some 5,000 more in 2015.
Jean-Claude Allard, a retired general and senior research fellow at the Paris-based IRIS think tank, says that France’s military has seen its numbers lacking since the draft was phased out between 1996 and 2001.
“The draft was a win-win for the state and for youth. The state had people to serve the country and young people learned basic life skills and the necessary qualifications to get a job,” says retired Gen. Allard.
EDIs and SMV
Those operating EDIs realize that the military isn’t suitable for all. The EDIs, which benefit some 2,400 young people in the Paris region alone, teach primarily the same educational and social skills as the SMVs – minus the military haircuts. And they are already seeing around 55 percent of their graduates find employment.
The EDIs and SMV are so similar in their missions, in fact, that one wonders why getting the military involved was necessary.
Stéphane Colenthier, director of EDI Le Tipi, says having centers like his managed at a regional level, rather than at the military's state level, helps to better analyze what populations need. He notes that the state can’t have an answer to everything.
“It’s important to recognize that not all of these young people would be selected by the military or succeed in such an environment,” says Mr. Colenthier. “However, the more responses there are to joblessness and youth left behind, the more we’ll be able to reach different types of people.”