Accessibility links

Breaking News

Europe: France--Unemployment As A Way Of Life

Prague, 25 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Walk down any avenue in a major French city these days and you stand a good chance of being accosted politely by a man or woman selling a tabloid-sized, six-paged newspaper called "Les SDF." The paper costs 10 francs (about $1.75) and its cover tells you that six francs of the money goes to the vendor, the rest to the paper.

"SDF" is the acronym for the three words in French --"sans domicile fixe" (literally, without permanent residence) that signifies what one English word declares: "homeless."

"Les SDF" is one of several such tabloids sold in the streets by the French homeless. There are estimated to be tens of thousands, perhaps low-hundreds of thousands, of homeless in France today. There is no accurate count. The government says that more than 12 percent of the nation's work force is unemployed -- 25 percent among young people (16-25) -- and that about a half of the jobless has been without work for more than a year.

The government's statistics office has estimated that at least one French family in 10 lives under the poverty level -- less than in the U.S. or Britain, which have lower jobless rates, but steadily growing.

France has lived with chronically high unemployment for some 20 years. In times of economic growth as well as recession, the number of jobless has continued to grow. Successive conservative as well as socialist governments have tried various cures -- creating more public-sector jobs (there are already five million), stimulating economic growth through injections of public money into one stagnating industry or another, offering incentives for job creation in the private sector.

None of the remedies has worked, although all have helped to swell France's welfare state into one of the most costly in the European Union.

Now, France's current Socialist-led Government is seeking to create some 300,000 jobs for young people in the next two years. One major way it thinks it can do so is by reducing the work week from 39 to 35 hours, without a proportionate reduction in salary.

Many analysts in and outside of France believe that scheme won't work, either. They say the solution to France's jobs problem -- and to those elsewhere in the EU -- can only come only by a thorough restructuring of the economic system that would drastically reduce welfare-state payments and social charges on employers and make a more flexible and highly rigid national labor market.

With no solution in sight, "chmage," or unemployment, has now become a way of life for millions in France. Go to a French cinema today, and you could easily happen upon "Marius et Jeannette," a drama set in the "underclass" of the southern port of Marseilles, which is a big commercial as well as critical success.

Listen to French pop music, particularly the French version of U.S. rap, and "chmage" and "SDF" are frequent themes or references. Turn on French television, and you could easily stumble upon a situation comedy that features characters who are unemployed.

How many millions of the almost 60 million French people are out of work? That depends on whether you accept the government's low estimate of 3.2 million, or the higher estimate of some five million suggested by many objective analysts.

The analysts include in their figure all those out of work -- including those so long jobless that they are no longer looking for work -- or underemployed, or on government-support programs not factored into the government's estimate.

Whether the true figure is closer to three or five million, the reality is that virtually every French family has a member or relative or friend who is jobless. One politician, who asked not to be cited by name, was quoted as saying recently that France's "priority now is not creating jobs but acknowledging that some people will never work."

It's remarks like that have led foreign commentators such as German analyst Josef Joffe to speak of successive French governments' "passivity" in the face of what is clearly a growing social crisis. But politicians do occasionally promise to address the crisis, and sometimes are even elected because of it.

In 1995, conservative Jacques Chirac was elected president, the country's most powerful political office, by pledging to do something about the country's "social fracture." Two years later, after Chirac failed to fulfill his promise, voters slapped him down by using a snap election he had called to install a Left government, with whom Chirac now uneasily co-exists.

The analyst who first publicized the phrase "social fracture" --and helped in Chirac's 1995 campaign -- is Emmanuel Todd, a demographer who made his reputation in a late-1970s book predicting the coming collapse of the Soviet Union. Todd has a new book out now, "The Economic Illusion: An Essay on the Stagnation of Developed Societies," which has been a surprise hit in French bookstores in recent weeks.

In his new book, Todd says that shrinking numbers of young people in Western Europe in the period 1990 to 2010 mean consumer demand will diminish as well. In turn, he says, reduced demand will lower economic growth and raise the jobless figure.

Like the homeless who have produced "Les SDF," the jobless are rapidly organizing themselves in France. There is an increasing national trend of resorting to barter -- English lessons, say, in exchange for plumbing repairs -- among people who have little money to pay bills. In the past three years, more than 250 local exchange systems have sprung up throughout France. Members pool knowledge or skills and, while no money is actually exchanged, "capital" is accumulated or spent through offers printed in a catalogue.

French tax authorities have complained they have no claim to "capital" earned in this fashion. A test case soon to be heard in the Pyrenees region could lead to popular protest if the judgment favors the authorities. Already the long-term jobless, whom the French call the "excluded," have formed militant groups which frequently take to the streets to demonstrate for higher welfare payments.

French politicians say they won't risk restructuring the national economy by cutting back on their vaunted welfare-state "social model" and moving toward what they dismiss as the "Anglo-Saxon model." They believe they would be committing political suicide if they did.