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Last Updated: Friday, 31 March 2006, 06:47 GMT 07:47 UK
Desire for stability drives French unrest
By Henri Astier
BBC News website, Paris

There is a key difference between the French student rebels of the 1960s and those of today.

Chouaki Aroua
I'll take the job if they give it to me... I have no choice.
Chaouki Aroua

Four decades ago, unrest thrived on a heady mix of ideology and hope. The current protests are fuelled by fear and insecurity.

The 1968 protesters rejected mainstream society. Their modern brethren are angry at being kept out.

The issue that prompted the recent wave of demonstrations is a job scheme, called CPE, that allows employers to sack young workers at will during a two-year trial period.

This is anathema to a generation that feels shut out from the world of steady work.

Lucky to be employed

Take the story of Chaouki Aroua, a 24-year-old business graduate from Bondy, just north of Paris.

"I left university almost two years ago and I'm still looking for a decent sales job," he says.

"I can probably find work flogging tyres or soap, but I haven't studied for four years to do that. I prefer being a cleaner."

In fact, that is just what he is. After cleaning underground stations every day, Chaouki returns to his parents' home - he cannot afford to get his own - and scans the internet for jobs.

"There are very few to go round, and I'm at the back of the queue as I have no relevant experience."

In desperation he applied for a job as a train driver - hiding his business degree to avoid being rejected as overqualified.

"I'll take the job if they give it to me," he says ruefully. "I have no choice."

Chaouki is among the lucky ones - at least he is employed.

Unpaid work

Joblessness is endemic among the 15-24 age-group in France.

Thierry de Ville d'Avray
I don't have the paperwork for full unemployment benefits
Thierry de Ville d'Avray

About 23% are registered as unemployed - an extremely high figure by international standards. Many more youths are not even looking for work.

Not only does France create few entry-level jobs - but most are being offered on a casual basis.

The grim realities of the French labour market were brought home to Baptiste Thierry de Ville d'Avray, 24, a budding photographer who completed a university course in multimedia technologies two years ago.

"I worked in bars and restaurants for a year - most of it was not declared, which means I don't have the paperwork for full unemployment benefits," he says.

Last year, Baptiste left a line of work he considered stultifying and is doing work with a co-operative of photographers - but he is not being paid.

Destitution risk

Most graduates who do find work are caught on an endless treadmill of dreary short-term jobs, interspersed with unemployed spells.

Raymond Torres, head of employment policy unit at the OECD, says only 45% of those with short-term contracts get permanent jobs within three years. In Germany and the UK, the figure is 60%.

"It is very difficult once you have a short-term contract to get out of this situation in France," Mr Torres told the BBC News website.

Such grim prospects haunt the current generation of school-leavers and graduates. Without stable jobs, many find it all-but impossible to rent flats and live normal lives.

Nadia, a volunteer for AC!, an association that helps the destitute, says she sees increasing numbers of young people whose lives are blighted by dead-end jobs.

"Things are getting worse," she says. "Until about three years ago, most of the people we dealt with were long-term unemployed.

"Now two-thirds have recently had some sort casual or temporary work that led to nothing."

"Many people today live from one month to the next."

Craving security

The reasons for the lack of good jobs are many and complex. Mr Torres says a university system divorced from the world of business is one factor.

Poster on labour laws
Unemployment in France is not a crime, but it can be a long sentence

"Typically French youths come out of four or five years in universities with no work experience whatsoever," he says.

Furthermore, employers are reluctant to hire as shedding staff is cumbersome and risky.

"The legal uncertainty surrounding dismissals is a major source of labour rigidity and that may explain why employers are loathe to give permanent contracts," Mr Torres adds.

Whatever the cause, the result is that the young in France crave job security above all - 75% say they want to be public servants.

This explains their opposition to the government's plan, which is aimed at making labour markets more fluid.

Concern for the future

Some French students, however, do not take a dim view of labour flexibility.

Renaud, 26, was hired straight out of university under a new scheme similar to the CPE introduced last year - without triggering any protests - for companies with fewer than 20 employees.

He now works for a small financial consulting firm. "I am rather in favour of flexible work contracts," Renaud says.

"It enables employers to take someone on without committing themselves for the long term."

"I prefer to live in a world where you can get fired within two weeks but find work quickly, than in a world where you have a job for life but it takes five years to find another if you lose it."

Renaud, who holds a Masters' degree in finance and oozes confidence, is very much in the minority among French students.

Most - unlike the 1968-ers who wanted to change the world - worry about the future and are desperate to hold on to whatever job stability they can salvage.

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