When the jobcentre in Concarneau, Brittany, advertised vacancies for eight cooks to make crepes (Breton pancakes) in local restaurants, it expected to fill them within days. But a month later, the posts were still empty and the head of the jobcentre, Christine Dubois-Broutin, was scratching her head. "We knew there was a shortage of employees in creperies around here, but we have never had so many unfilled jobs before," she said.
It is not just the crepes that are being shunned in the land of haute cuisine. According to a survey by the hotel and catering magazine L'Hotellerie, a quarter of all French restaurants are unable to find cooks for their kitchens. Although there are 2.41 million people out of work, 31 per cent of restaurants were also short of waiters and 13 per cent said they had trouble even recruiting a head chef. Oddly, it was easier to get someone to do the washing-up or answer the telephone.
Why are the French refusing to cook or serve food? When the shortage of cooks was first detected a few years ago, unions blamed low pay. A wage rise would bring staff back into the kitchen, they told restaurateurs. But when the owners followed this advice, it had no effect. Indeed, L'Hotellerie reports that the shortage has got worse over the past year, with 25,000 jobs now vacant in hotels and restaurants.
Employers and unions think the trou-ble is time, not money. Seven out of ten French employees work the 35-hour week introduced in January 2000 by the government of Lionel Jospin. But restaurants and hotels were given until 2007 to reduce working hours. Many staff put in more than 40 hours, including evenings and weekends. Arnaud Beauvais, owner of the Jardin Gourmand in Lorient, Brittany, said: "Youngsters see how many hours we do in the restaurant trade and they compare it to their friends in other jobs, who spend less time at work."
He said school-leavers would like to emulate the top French chefs, such as Philippe Legendre, who earns 228,673 euros a year at the Hotel George V in Paris, or Guy Martin, who earns 182,928 euros at the Grand Vefour, also in Paris. But they are not ready to put up with the traditional apprenticeship that involves years of chopping and stirring in sweaty, noisy and stressful kitchens. "We have a generation of young people who don't want to make an effort," complained Beauvais. But washing-up was different, he said. It was unskilled labour undertaken by people - often immigrants - who were happy to have any job. "It is far harder to get young people to cook because it is a skill you need to acquire."
Last year, the average wages paid to plongeurs (washers-up) in French restaurants fell by 2 per cent, to 7.16 euros an hour, and yet candidates kept applying for the vacancies. At the same time, the average salary paid to cooks rose by 6 per cent, to 18,655 euros for an assistant chef and 25,584 euros for a head chef. In up-market restaurants (defined as those charging more than 22 euros a head), there was a 19 per cent rise, to 28,249 euros for a head chef. Yet the posts stayed empty.
Some employers have resolved the problem by advertising abroad. Loulou Garnero, who runs a restaurant in Menton, on the border with Italy, said: "As soon as I need to recruit people, I put a small ad into the Italian press and I get answers from towns all the way down the coast to Genoa. The Italians are perfectly prepared to come and work here."
Other restaurant owners, such as Arnaud Beauvais, say they are trying to tempt the French back into the kitchen with the introduction of flexible working patterns. But even then, many of the best chefs leave, with Britain often the destination. The hours are no shorter on the other side of the Channel, but the wages are higher and the taxes are lower. "I encourage them to go abroad for a while," said Beauvais. "But I tell them to come back to France after a few years."