April 27, 2009 / 12:06 PM / in 9 years

Angry French graduates wage battle for jobs

PARIS (Reuters) - Parisian Malcolm Hammer leads a life that many students would recognize: he shares a flat with friends, has a string of jobs and holds clear political views, but his plans for the future are less certain.

Hammer left university more than six years ago but, like thousands of other French graduates, he is stuck in economic limbo, drifting between internships, temporary jobs and freelance work.

In Italy, Germany, Spain and Greece, many graduates and young workers are in similar circumstances to 34-year old Hammer and the economic crisis is likely to worsen their plight.

“We are the people who did everything right: good degrees, internships, accepting any working conditions, and we still can’t find a proper job,” Hammer said. “It’s just so much easier for companies to take interns instead of creating jobs.”

As the youth riots in Greece showed last year, frustration can quickly turn into violence. France, too, has a record of protests.

More worrying is the risk of the downturn creating a European “lost generation” who will miss out on an eventual upturn, as occurred in Japan where young workers have been excluded from the formal job market since the last crisis in the 1990s.

Slowing growth is alarming workers everywhere, but for people such as Hammer, the outlook is particularly bleak.

For the past few years, they have grappled with a rigid labor market where older employees cling to well-protected permanent jobs, while younger temporary workers or interns fill the gaps and are discarded when no longer needed.

Unemployment for the youngest segment of French workers is three times higher than for older workers.

“Within the family, solidarity is strong since many have to stay with their parents for longer,” Hammer told Reuters, adding that this contrasts with social friction outside the family.

“There’s a war of generations and strong competition between the different age groups,” he added.

CONSTANT UNCERTAINTY

In the fourth quarter of 2008, the unemployment rate for French workers aged between 15 and 24 was 21.2 percent, having steadily risen in the course of the year. This was three times the jobless rate for those aged from 25 to 49, which stood at 7.4 percent. For workers over 49, it was 5.2 percent.

With the French economy estimated to shrink by 1.2 percent in the first three months of this year, according to a Reuters poll, companies are likely to lay off more temporary staff and invest less in training.

That could aggravate one of continental Europe’s big problems: workers who flit between jobs and are unable to plan their future, start a family or buy a house because of constant uncertainty.

“Some temporary contracts are very good stepping stones for young people,” said Glenda Quintini, a researcher at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) studying youth labor in Europe. “For others, it can be a trap that can last forever.”

Japan, once a proud defender of lifetime employment, saw its job market crash during the decade-long slump of the 1990s.

By 2007, roughly one-third of Japanese workers were in non-regular employment, according to a report by Chang-Hun Han, another OECD researcher.

When Japanese companies started hiring again a few years ago, they picked fresh graduates rather than workers tarnished by years of low-skilled work or unemployment.

Three years ago, Hammer and his friends set up “Generation Precaire,” a French organization that defends the rights of interns and other “precarious” workers. Their anger is shared by many.

According to a study published in 2008 by the Foundation for Political Innovation, only 26 percent of French people between the ages of 16 and 29 see their future as promising, compared with 60 percent of Danes and 54 percent of Americans in the same age group.

CHEAP ALTERNATIVE Germany and Italy have bred similar movements fighting for the “Praekariat” and the “precariato,” respectively.

They demand companies give jobs to young people instead of using interns as a cheap alternative -- a practice that is particularly tempting at a time when budgets are tight.

“The crisis is forcing us to be particularly vigilant about the good use of internships by employers,” France’s top official for youth issues, Martin Hirsch, said in a speech in March.

Pressured by protests, France’s government has announced it will put together an emergency plan for its youth.

Ideas include promoting training schemes, such as apprenticeships, and courses to re-train for other jobs those graduates who cannot find work in their sector.

Some have proposed subsidizing jobs linked to the local community or non-profit organizations, or rewarding companies for hiring young people.

Some previous government measures, such as a contract proposed in 2006 that would have made it easier to hire and fire first-time workers, were scuppered by protesting youths who feared it would make life even more uncertain.

France’s young people are preparing for more protests, taking inspiration from the 1968 student uprising that grew into a general strike.

“There’s an anger among the young that’s even stronger than in May 1968,”Julien Bayou, who finished his studies five years ago and now runs a PR business, told Reuters during student protests earlier this month. “It’s an entire age group that’s being held in contempt.”

Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon in Paris; editing by Andrew Dobbie

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