Unprotected under employment law, France’s young people are its most vulnerable — both economically and socially. The infamous rebalancing of the books has hit them the hardest. Hence their growing outrage at the injustice of facing mass unemployment, despite being better qualified than their parents’ or grandparents’ generation. With the youth unemployment rate at 23% for the first quarter of this year (56% in Greece, 49% in Croatia, just 7.8% in Germany), the situation is now beyond critical.
Jobs are so thin on the ground for France's youth that many are being forced to prolong their studies. But this barely seems to feature on the government’s economic radar. The National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE) puts the percentage of young people out of work at 23%. Yet this oft-cited statistic does not reflect the true severity of the situation. INSEE defines a 'young person' as being aged between 16 and 24, but French students are often 25 or older by the time they gain their qualifications. If those entering the job market for the first time are lumped into the same category as the rest of the workforce — without being able to benefit from the same status under employment law — how can politicians expect even to understand the situation for jobless young people, let alone to tackle it?
Éric Hayer, Director of Studies at the research institute OFCE, points out that a mere 2% of growth would be enough to combat mass unemployment and get the wheels of the economy turning again. As long as European policy decrees that government deficits must be reduced, this will remain an impossibility. Demand is shrinking and it is taking growth with it. Government incentives like the Contrat de Génération — designed to get young people into work and older people to keep working for longer — will have little real impact. Until the economic future grows a little less foggy, employers will continue to be reluctant to hire young people on those elusive permanent contracts.
Even the famous entrepreneurial spirit seems reluctant to ride to the rescue of France’s youth. Funding from major financial players is rarely forthcoming. Attracting investment is increasingly fraught for small and medium-sized businesses, in spite of the emergence of new strategies such as microcredit and crowdfunding.
The problems plaguing the French job market are common to all European economies, but a lack of political coordination in France makes EU policy difficult to implement successfully. Successful solutions would take into account the risk of a levelling-down effect (so-called social or economic ‘dumping’). They would view our jobs market, unemployment rate, taxation, welfare and state pension age as interlinked issues, not separate entities. Instead, in an economic zone where wealth and workers can move freely — and where there should, theoretically, be a balance between supply and demand — inequality is positively rife.
Of course, the bare bones of compensatory measures are there: the European Social Fund, France's Pôle Emploi job centres and the Youth in Movement project are some such examples. Yet none can cope with the scale of the problem. Even the European Parliament has called for budgets to be increased, in the hope of countering the continent’s woes. But, as economist Thomas Piketty argues, the crisis is compounded by the disparity that lurks at the heart of the Eurozone, a disparity between 18 different tax systems, 18 different sets of interest rates, 18 different debts, and 18 different national budgets.
Representation for the younger generation?
A study carried out by France Télévisions, published last February in Le Monde, testified to a growing sense of frustration amongst the younger generation. It indicated that anxieties are fast being converted into a sense of dissonance with (and defiance towards) France’s ruling classes. According to the study, 71% of French citizens feel that the children of today will lead less prosperous lives than their parents. Such figures, although worrying, are hardly difficult to explain. Austerity politics continues to asphyxiate economic growth. Internships are attainable, less so jobs. Sluggish interest rates show little sign of rising, filling people with fears of a precarious future. This unique blend of grim circumstances feeds the panic felt by Generation Y — those far-from-prodigal sons and daughters of the 80s and 90s — inflaming their resentment of our nation’s politicians.
No political response has, so far, proved a worthy opponent for these economic woes. Fundamentally, very little has changed since Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked the country in 2002 by reaching the second round of the presidential elections. Since then, the far-right Front National has carved out a prominent place for itself on France’s political landscape, taking advantage of innumerable scandals and the failings of politicians in the regions that form the so-called ‘republican block’. Securing nearly 25% of the vote in the recent European elections, the Front National has become France’s foremost political party. The young electorate is their prime target. Add to this the almost 27 million abstentions in the last elections and alarm bells rise to a crescendo. Young people, their faith in the traditional parties waning, are left with only one option: the protest vote, in testament to their disenchantment with a Europe obsessed by creating the very competition that stifles our social structures.
The young voters of Generation Y are generally dismissed as modelling their political convictions on those of their parents, as if they shared the same concerns. Young people should be seen as a serious section of the electorate. Instead, with every election, they are seized upon by the left and right to jazz up the image of party politics. Young people ought to be more than mere victims of the Government’s clean-up operations, bearing the brunt of debts incurred by the Trente Glorieuse generation, born between 1945-1975.
‘Each generation is a new people’: the words of Alexis de Tocqueville are well worth keeping in mind. The urgency of the current situation should not be sidelined by the other aspirations of this new century. Europe’s young people have both talent and ambition. They are hungry for success. They should be able to express themselves fully — even if that expression includes anger. Minds have to be freed before ambitions can be realised.
The duty of politics is to build paths between the past and the future. While we wait for a political response capable of truly tackling these issues, Cafébabel, in partnership with Politicus, invite you to our Conference on Youth Unemployment.