Lost youth

Young French people are deeply frustrated by lack of opportunity and a lack of respect from their pa

"Unemployment and instability make us feel vulnerable," says Marion, a 23-year-old Master's student of communications taking part in a youth debate on the main issues of the French presidential campaign. "Our generation has to cope with a health insurance deficit, and pay for our parents' pensions, while spending half of our small salaries on rent. We'd be happy to reach our parents' standard of living. No matter how qualified we are, we fear for the future."

Like many young people in France, Marion has good reason to be worried. The biggest challenge facing her is that it now takes longer to find a proper job. In 1982, only 10 per cent of young people in France failed to find a steady job within three years of leaving education. In 2004, the figure stood at more than a quarter, and finding permanent work can take up to several years of internships and temporary contracts. Tired of working for little or no money, one group of disaffected interns has even formed a campaign group, Génération-Précaire (www.generation-precaire.org), to oppose what it sees as a latter-day form of slavery.

Those people lucky enough to find work will discover that the pay gap between generations has also widened. In 1975, workers aged 50 earned 15 per cent more, on average, than workers aged 30. Today this gap stands at 40 per cent, according to the sociologist Louis Chauvel.

And it's not just the jobs market that is proving difficult for young French people, who are less well represented politically than they used to be. In 1982, the average age of a politician or a trade-union delegate was 45. In 2000, according to the French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies, it was 59.

Studying hard doesn't offer the guarantees it once did. After the government's efforts to increase the number of people in further education in the 1980s, the proportion of students in a single age group passing the baccalauréat rose from 30 per cent to 62 per cent between 1988 and 1994. Over the same period, the proportion of university graduates in a single age group rose from 10 per cent to more than 20 per cent. However, writes Chauvel, "because there are more graduates than jobs available, a significant portion of university leavers are unable to follow the same careers as the generation that went before them".

Gaëtan and Camille, aged 19 and 18 respectively, are studying arts management in Paris and they already know that life will be harder for them than it was for their parents, "when you could find a job even without training". The situation is worse still if you're black or Arab.

"When you say you're from here and you have an Arab name, there's no chance of being employed," says Fatima, 25, who works at a children's play centre in Villeparisis, to the east of Paris. Even finding a place to live is a hassle, says her friend Sabrina, 22. "Take me, for example. I don't look particularly Arab. I was about to sign a lease for a flat when the landlady saw that my husband had a Maghrebi name. She asked what nationality he was. French, we said. She replied: 'But you're of Algerian origin.' And she refused to let the apartment to us!" Renting, even if you are white and have a job, is so difficult that young people have formed a protest group, Black Thursday (www.jeudi-noir.org), which holds demonstrations in the form of parties, with champagne and music, during appointments to view properties.

Young people's anger and frustration ends up boiling over. In the suburbs, with their high concentrations of immigrants and poverty and their excessive police checks, this anger took the form of riots in the autumn of 2005. In the cities, at the beginning of 2006, schoolchildren and students joined forces with workers to demonstrate against the planned law for a CPE ("contrat première embauche"), which would allow employers to dismiss workers as they pleased during the first two years of a job.

These two phenomena differ, of course. The suburban riots were sparked by the acci dental deaths of two youths running from the police in Clichy-sous-Bois. The unrest was then ex acerbated by the one-upmanship of teenagers from rival areas, only too happy to profit from the surrounding chaos. The anti-CPE movement, on the other hand, was the continuation of a tradition of student and teacher activism that has opposed every national education reform for the past 20 years. That the CPE didn't directly target education is unimportant: young people simply felt that their professional future was threatened.

Riots and demonstrations "are two kinds of reaction by young people to the risks of social exclusion and a drop in social status", says Anne Muxel, director of research at Cevipof, the Centre for Political Research at Sciences-Po in Paris. Young people feel a lack of control over their own destinies. They have little faith in the actions of politicians, and if many of them continue to consider voting a duty, they don't expect it to deliver any improvement in their daily lives.

The result is that political activism often takes to the streets - against the CPE, for example - to return home only once the storm has passed, in anticipation of the next demonstration. People are turning away from conventional forms of power (politics, business and the media) in fa vour of direct action. In the eyes of many young people, the fact that in February parliament voted for a law obliging public bodies to give better help to the poorly housed, is thanks mainly to the actions of Les Enfants de Don Quichotte, a collective that donated about a hundred tents to the Paris homeless last winter.

In an opinion poll that asked young French people which values they would most like to see upheld, respect came first, followed by solidarity and then equality. According to Stéphane Wahnich, anthropologist and director of SCP Communication, which carried out the study, young French people want three things: genuine equality of opportunity at the political level and not just a theoretical framework of rights; respect for individuals, regardless of their race or social background; and solidarity for the poorest in the form of material support. The old-fashioned word fraternity no longer means much to most people. The term liberty placed right near the bottom of the survey list.

Far from the stereotype that a 35-hour week has bred laziness among French workers, young people place a great deal of importance on jobs: half of all young French people say they want to become civil servants, mainly for the job security. According to the sociologists Christian Baudelot and Roger Establet, work remains an essential way to branch out and forge networks.

Forty years after the libertarian explosion of May 1968, French youths have a respect for authority. Not in the reactionary sense, but in order to retain the lessons learned from the past few decades' experiments in human relationships - between parents and children, couples, and so on. Tolerance is still the guiding factor, but it now has its limits.

This partly explains the wave of young French people moving to the UK. "Emigrating allows you to regain control over your fate, to choose your life freely," says Wahnich. Many French people are also attracted by the legendary British tolerance: you can dress how you want - in a miniskirt, with pink hair - without attracting remarks, and police make fewer identity checks than their French counterparts.

Is this simply due to indifference to one another? Young French people prefer to see it as the respect to which they aspire.

Frédéric Niel is a journalist with La Croix.

This article was translated by Daniel Trilling

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