Contribution to EIRO thematic feature on Youth and work - case of France

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More than one young person out of three in work has a state-subsidised job. A serious problem of clarity has been generated by the accumulation of layers of schemes deposited by successive administrations and the ups and downs of the economy, and questions, for the most part legitimate ones, about the effectiveness of these policies have been raised. The schemes involve a number of institutions and actors, the co-ordinated efforts of whom constitute an essential stake for the most vulnerable groups. Outside the field of professional development, the social partners have little investment in state youth policy, but have carried out extensive research, brainstorming and specific actions on young people’s employment conditions, etc.

1. Regulatory framework

In your country, is there a specific policy towards young workers?

The statutory minimum school-leaving age is 16. However there are a few specific cases where people can enter the labour market before the age of 16, such as employment in the parents’ company, sporadic work, young people who have left school early taking up an apprenticeship at 15; employment in an entertainment company, subject to endorsement by the départemental Labour Ministry office; and school holiday jobs, subject to the Labour Inspectorate’s endorsement.

*What are the main regulatory acts dealing with youth employment/ working conditions?

The general labour rules in the Labour Code apply to young people. However, there are special rules for the under-18s in terms of working time (stricter control over the 35-hour week) and pay (the minimum wage, the SMIC can be reduced by 10% for the under 18s, and by 20% for the 16-17 year-olds, except after the first six months of work). Besides, certain jobs are prohibited to, or highly regulated for these young people, depending on the degree of danger or hardship involved. The employer must also allow the young person the time required to take occupational training classes during the working day. 

Are there targeted policies for young people in general, for young workers specifically, focusing on some categories of young workers?

French employment policy is made up of a combination of schemes that are not age-specific, but which young people can access, as well as measures targeted at specific age groups: in general, the under 26s. See below.

2. National Programmes on Youth employment

Is youth unemployment perceived as a major political issue and/or concern for the social partners in your country?

Because of its scope and consequences, youth unemployment has been flagged as an important concern for the social partners.

Please provide the major figures available and pertinent on youth employment/ unemployment / long term unemployment, broken down per gender. See table 1 and table 2.

France is the EU member-state in which young people enter the labour market the latest, and their participation rate is the lowest. In some way, the school system represents the first level of employment policy. The proportion of young people unemployed is 8%. Yet, the unemployment rate indicator is just as significant for those young people actually in work, in that young people in the economically active category are 2.2 times as likely to be unemployed as the average.

Periods of unemployment are noticeably shorter for young people than for adults. However, the frequency of unemployment is greater. This indicates a specific position for young people vis-à-vis employment: they are not excluded from the labour market, but more of them are in precarious situations, in which unstable jobs frequently alternate with periods of unemployment.

The employment rate reflects the hierarchy of qualifications acquired in the educational system, with women disadvantaged vis-à-vis men at every level, except for university graduates. The young people category actually conceals significant differences?

Table 1 - Employment and unemployment for young people in 2004
. 2004 Employment rate 15-24 year-olds Unemployment rate 15-24 year-olds % of 15-24 year-olds unemployed % unemployed for more than a year 15-29 15-65 % unemployed for more than 2 years 15-29 15-65
Men 37.8 21.6 8.1 28.1 41.5 9.2 20.7
Women 30.3 24.2 7.3 27.4 41.8 8.2 19.9
Total 34.7 22 8        

Source: INSEE, Employment Survey

Table 2 - Youth unemployment by level of qualification
2004 - Unemployment rate 1-4 years after receiving qualifications Men Women
Exams taken at 15 43.4 47.0
CAP/BEP and equivalent 22.5 27.8
Baccalauréat and equivalent 16.1 20.6
Higher education 11.9 10.2

Source: INSEE, Employment Survey

*What are the objectives?

With over one million young beneficiaries (an age cohort numbers around 850,000 young people), state-funded labour market access programmes have made massive contributions to integrating young people into the labour market. In the five years after leaving education, half an age cohort has been included in an employment policy scheme. State-funded jobs account for almost 40% of all employment for the under-26s ( in p. 88) who also make up 40% of the clients of all employment policy schemes.

The many programmes that have come and gone, often with each passing political administration, are extremely diverse, both in terms of the circumstances in which employers can use such schemes, and the young people’s employment conditions, i.e. trainee or employee on a non-standard employment contract; either on a permanent or fixed-term contract; paid on the basis of the SMIC or less; either in the market or non-market sector. However, it is possible to identify three groups of schemes based on three categories of instruments as permanent features throughout the more than 20-year period of uninterrupted youth employment policy.

One raft of policies, by far the largest number, aims at granting access to work within the market sector, principally based on a reduction in companies’ payroll costs. It is primarily small firms (with fewer than 10 employees) that use subsidised schemes in the market sector. Here we should distinguish between a purely subsidised model, which is supposed to foster the recruitment of particular categories (young people, young long-term unemployed, poorly-qualified young people, etc.); and a mixed model, which includes trade-offs between training provided by the firm, and measures for cutting payroll costs. Schemes where young workers alternate between work experience and training - established in 1983 - are derived from this second model, with the acquisition of skills possibly leading to a diploma, and justifying a level of pay below the minimum wage (55-80% of the SMIC). The Social Cohesion Act of January 2005 (FR0409104F) provided for a single contract for all work experience & training schemes, called the professionalisation contract (contrat de professionnalisation [1]). This is a permanent or fixed-term contract combining the acquisition of a recognised qualification at the end of a training period of at least 150 hours, with work experience in a company, exempt from social security contributions up to a ceiling equivalent to the SMIC. Alongside this contract, an apprenticeship scheme has for a long time aimed at integrating people into particular trades (building and public works, crafts and trades, etc.). Apprenticeship, a long-neglected career path, despite many legislative incentives, took off and opened up to include new trades in the 1990s. As of September 2005, 350,000 young people held apprenticeships.

Schemes for exemption from social security contributions based on the first model described above, have impacted, in both complementary and competitive ways, on work experience & training schemes. Since 1995, the Employment Integration Contract (contrat d’insertion dans l’emploi - CIE) has addressed young people who have been unemployed for 12 months (CIE). The Young Company Worker’s Contract (Contrats Jeune en entreprise - CJE) implemented by the Minister of Social Affairs, Labour and Solidarity, François Fillon in summer 2002 (FR0211106F), is part of this tradition of state-subsidised jobs without a training component as a trade-off for the subsidy. The programme created a permanent contract on at least a half-time basis paid the SMIC, for those under aged 22 and without the baccalauréat (the age limit rises to 26 for a young unqualified person), and allowed for total exemption from social security contributions over the first two years of the contract, followed by a 50% cut for the third year. It was extended in the Social Cohesion Act. As of September 2005, 120,000 young people were employed on CJEs.

In the second raft of policies, the emphasis is on a newer model of job creation that satisfies unmet collective needs in the non-market sector. Until 1997, these programmes had aimed exclusively at disadvantaged groups. The Community Employment (Travaux d’utilité collective - TUC) from 1983, and the subsequent Solidarity Employment Contracts (Contrats emploi solidarité - CES) from 1990, have quickly become instruments for dealing socially with unemployment. The statistical target that mainly guided the promoters of the scheme turned out to be hard to reconcile with the identification of specific tasks with the training component required by the Act. These specific tasks have little chance of being turned into real jobs considering the budgetary constraints weighing over the local authorities and state bodies accounting for more than half of the employers concerned. A slight change occurred with the creation of the New Youth Employment Service Jobs (Nouveaux services emplois jeunes programme - NSEJ) (FR9806116F). This scheme, which gambled on the recognition and professionalisation of new jobs linked to social mediation, the environment, personal services, etc., was aimed at the under-26 age group, regardless of the level of qualifications attained, and provided a response to massive needs in local authorities, the state education system (teaching assistants) and the police (security auxiliaries). The long-term horizon (5-year contracts), the move closer to the conditions of a standard contract (the full SMIC, full-time work), and the establishment of qualifying paths were the main assets of this programme. The trade-off was limited access for disadvantaged groups. Almost 80% of young entrants had qualifications higher or equal to the baccalauréat. The programme enabled 350,000 jobs to be created between 1997 and 2002. It was closed down in 2002. The Social Cohesion Act 2005 (FR0409104F) provided for a Work Guidance Contract (contrat d’accompagnement dans l’emploi - CAE) that aims to recruit young unemployed people for a maximum period of two years, and a minimum working week of 20 hours in the non-market sector (the objective being to bring 200,000 young people into the scheme). Moreover, the Pathway for Access to Local Authority, Hospital and Central Government Civil Service Careers (Parcours d’accès aux carrières des fonctions publiques territoriales, hospitalière et de l’Etat - PACTE) will enable 20,000 unqualified 16-25 year-olds (who have been looking for employment for more than a year) to work in the civil service, through a work experience & training scheme, without having to take the competitive entrance exams.

The third group of measures is aimed at providing assistance for young people experiencing difficulties. The 1982 Schwartz Report led to the establishment of local youth employment agencies (missions locales), co-ordinated by the Ministry of Labour, responsible for youth guidance and orientation. It advocated a holistic policy toward deprived young people allowing occupational and social integration to be combined (i.e. action on housing, health, prevention of delinquance, etc.), which assumes that the local actors in the integration process work with some degree of coordination (see below). The idea of constructing a personal pathway became a reality with the Access to Employment Pathway programme (Trajectoire d’Accès à l’Emploi - TRACE) (FR9806116F), established under the Anti-Exclusion Act of July 1998.  Aimed at those under-26s considered as experiencing the worst difficulties (social or family handicaps, absence of qualifications), the programme offered personal and ongoing guidance aiming at finding work for a period of up to 24 months, combining socialisation, training and occupational qualifications and financial support for the young person through a job access grant. It contained the explicit goal of half the young workers ending up in skilled jobs considered to constitute lasting employment (i.e. a permanent job or a fixed-term contract for more than 6 months). After the changeover of political power between Left and Right in 2002, it was replaced by the Integration into Social Life Contract (Contrat d’insertion dans la vie sociale - CIVIS) which revamped the content of the TRACE, and is based on the various schemes presented. Thirty thousand young people were covered by the programme as of September 2005. The June 2005 emergency plan (FR0507103F) provides for a Second Chance Defence Plan (Plan défense deuxième chance) aimed at helping under-21s heading for social marginalisation. These people are housed in special centres on a voluntary basis in order to acquire such socialisation rules as respecting others, and acquiring new skills in order to learn a trade on EUR 300 pay. The government’s objective is to bring 10,000 young people into this scheme by December 2006. Supervision is carried out by former soldiers and trainers from the Ministry of Education. The urban violence witnessed in November 2005 preceded the announcement of a Voluntary Civil Service (Service civil volontaire) by the President. This programme, targeted at helping young people find a job by enabling them to join various areas of civil service and community work (defence, police, the environment, health, culture and voluntary sector), will involve 50,000 young people by 2007. The length of this service, which will be based on all the existing schemes, will be 6-12 months. The national voluntary civil service quality mark will be bestowed on those bodies that carry out its implementation. The selection and evaluation of the organisations thus qualified to take on civil service volunteers and management of the voluntary civil service will be performed by the Social Cohesion and Equal Opportunities Agency, whose establishment was announced by Dominique de Villepin on 8 November.

*What are the outcomes?

With the exception of work experience & training schemes set up by a cross-sector agreement in 1983, the State has been the promoter of all employment policies. The implementation of these schemes involves decentralised state employment agencies, missions locales, regional authorities, which are responsible for vocational training, other local authorities that may be end-users of such schemes (e.g. the contrat d’accompagnement dans l’emploi), subsidised companies and other voluntary sector organisations employing people experiencing difficulties, and businesses. Guidance for young people experiencing difficulties through complex programmes provided by intricate partnerships requires bargaining processes involving the various actors. The greater the difficulties confronting the young people, the more crucial these partnerships may turn out to be.

How have programmes been evaluated? How results have been assessed?

Evaluation is co-ordinated by the Research, Surveys and Statistics Directorate (Direction de l’animation et de la recherche, des études et des statistiques, DARES) in the Ministry of Labour. The evaluation of a scheme first involves identifying the very criteria for entering the scheme and the numbers of people concerned: such as number of entrants, breakdown of the recipients by age, gender, qualifications and training level. Secondly, it aims to assess the impact of the recipients’ involvement on their later employment paths. The basic instrument in this case is the monitoring of recipients, either through various observations of their position at particular intervals after leaving the scheme, or by studyring a panel of them, whose social and employment paths are retraced over a given period. The method most often used is labeled non-experimental, and is based on a sample of recipients and a control sample of non-recipients, whose pathways are then compared. The evaluation of a policy assumes thirdly that the direct effects the scheme actually has on employment are assessed. These effects (windfall effects, substitution effects, etc.) are measured by surveys with employers who are asked about their hiring practices, both real and hypothetical, i.e. if the scheme had not existed. Windfall effects are generally greater in the market sector, which shows little employment impact on average in that sector. The weak impact on employment levels can however result in a substitution effect. This means that in order to receive subsidies, the employer changed the profile of the worker being sought for recruitment. In this case, a young person may take the place of an adult in the queue for recruitment. The employment effect is greater in the non-market sector, where hiring practices are more directly tied to the pro-active policy of the authorities.

The increasing number of employment policy evaluation studies since the 80s has resulted in a feeling of dissatisfaction, due to the diversity of the objectives, the few available points of comparison between them, the controversy surrounding their pertinence, and the difficult relationship between findings and decision-making processes.

Some findings that have remained stable over time do emerge from these evaluations:

  • The schemes do not all have similar results in terms of getting people back to work. The closer a scheme comes to normal employment, the greater the opportunity it provides for bringing its recipients into the workforce. The work experience & training schemes combining the acquisition of skills with access to work in companies are the most effective schemes in terms of later access to employment.
  • Actions revolving around integration into the workforce, training and guidance do not neutralise the determining influence of workers’ individual characteristics. The higher the qualifications, the greater the probability of finding work, whatever the scheme. Those without qualifications are always the worst hit by the risk of an extended return to unemployment.
  • The distribution of young people throughout the various labour market access schemes to a large extent reflects the selection patterns generated in the education system, i.e. the most highly qualified of the young unemployed take part in work experience & training schemes (65% of their beneficiaries have qualifications above baccalauréat level), and the least qualified are more likely to end up in subsidised employment in the non-market sector.
  • All in all, there are few effects counteracting this selection pattern. Unskilled young people have very little access to work in companies, and sometimes are stigmatised by having been on particular schemes such as the CES. The small number of young people without qualifications who are not covered by employment policy schemes makes any ‘all other things being equal’ analysis problematic for these groups.

3. Role and views of the social partners on Youth at work

Please provide brief details of the role and views of the social partners regarding the current policies and regulatory framework on youth employment in your country.

a) Do the social partners play a specific role in shaping youth employment policy? In youth employment policy implementation? At what level (National/sectoral/company)? b) How do the social partners contribute to specifying qualification and initial training needs for the national economy?

The social partners play a very restricted role in youth employment policies. They mainly act at sector level to set out and recognise certain professional qualifications that the contrat de professionnalisation (cf. above) can result in. They help define the qualifications established by the National Joint Employment Commission (commission paritaire nationale de l’emploi) in the various sectors and play a part in recognising qualifications through the job classifications drawn up in sector-level collective bargaining. More broadly, the social partners take part in joint bodies that regulate vocational training at regional level.

c) What are the main issues collective agreements on youth employment deal with?

See below.

d) Is there any sectoral plan/programme/action aimed at attracting and/or retaining young people in sectors lacking of workforce availability?

The June 2005 Emergency Plan (FR0507103F) established tax credits worth EUR 1,000 for young people who take jobs in industries experiencing labour shortages such as building and public works, hotels and restaurants, vehicle repair, etc., and agriculture.

Has this plan/programme/action been jointly -between Trade Unions and Employers Organisations- and implemented? If not who devised it?

No, it has not.

4. Discussions and research

Are there currently discussions underway about ways to tackle the issue of youth unemployment among trade unions and employers’ organisations?

Please specify the main recent research on that topic.

Is there any short term policy planned?

The national conference on employment, pay and working time established by the Jospin government in October 1997 laid plans to revitalise collective bargaining on youth employment. What was at stake was to extend the momentum generated by the Nouveaux Services Emplois Jeunes programme to the market sector. A total of 350,000 jobs for young workers were to be created in companies. However the government’s announcement of the first Aubry Act (on the reduction of working time) at the outset of the conference, led to the resignation of the then Chair of the National Council of French Employeurs (Conseil national du patronat français, CNPF) becomes MEDEF, Jean Gandois (FR9811140F), thus ending the only attempt to engage in collective bargaining on youth employment.

5. Commentary

  • problem of youth unemployment has been markedly exacerbated by the low level of replacement income for that group. The unemployment insurance scheme, subject to a series of budgetary adjustments, has played a part in excluding young people from the compensation system. Only 33.5% of young unemployed people are covered by unemployment insurance. The other jobless young people can access no other welfare benefit, because the Minimum Income Allowance (revenu minimum d'insertion - RMI) is open only to those aged over 26 (except if there are dependent children). The choice made in 1988 to set this age threshold for access to the RMI demonstrates a political desire to proscribe encouragement to live on welfare, and make integration into the workforce the primary means of subsistence for young people. Yet the serious deterioration of the conditions for occupational integration raise questions about the relevance of such an argument. Young people are thus consigned to live on their family’s resources. The many studies carried out in the voluntary sector have highlighted the precarious situations in which young people without family support or who belong to poor families find themselves.
  • particularly low levels of unionisation among the young is a major challenge for the unions, which face a genuine inter-generational crisis. The renewal of unionism must occur through consciousness-raising among the younger generation who have new employment statuses and new claims to make. This challenge is currently stalling on the low levels of participation by the unions in state youth employment policies.


Dares, 2005, Bilan de la politique de l’emploi en 2003, [‘Employment Policy Review, 2003’] Les Dossiers de la Dares, N°1/2005

Fondeur Y, Minni, C., “L’emploi des jeunes au coeur des dynamiques du travail”, [‘Youth employment at the heart of Labour Patterns’] Economie et Statistique, n° 378-379.

Lefresne F., 2003, Les jeunes et l’emploi, [‘Young People and Employment’] Repères, La Découverte.

IRES, 2005, Les mutations de l’emploi en France, [‘Changes in Employment in France’] Coll. Repères, La Découverte.

(Florence Lefresne, IRES)

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