France: EIRO CAR on ‘Helping young workers during the crisis: contributions by social partners and public authorities.’

  • Observatory: EurWORK
  • Topic:
  • Working conditions and sustainable work,
  • Published on: 07 August 2011

Sebastian Schulze-Marmeling

Disclaimer: This information is made available as a service to the public but has not been edited by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The content is the responsibility of the authors.

In comparison with other EU countries, youth unemployment in France is relatively high. Although this may be partly due to low activity rates and low levels of skills in the young, economically active population, it appears that the transition from education to employment is at the heart of the difficulties experienced by young people.The main policy responses to this phenomenon have included measures aimed at promoting various types of atypical employment contracts for young people and in particular training and apprenticeship contracts. Trade unions have criticised the increased risk of precarious working conditions for the youth and recent protests against the latest pension reform have shifted the issue of youth unemployment up the agenda of the social partners. However it is too early to assess whether this development will be sustained.


1.1 Please briefly indicate whether there is a debate in your country regarding the situation of young people in the labour market. Are gender differences one of the preeminent topics of the debate?

Youth unemployment has been relatively high in France over a long period. Figure 1 shows the average unemployment rate of workers under 25 years of age in France and in the EU 15 since the mid-1990s. The debate about high youth unemployment also predates the current economic crisis. One of the most famous examples is the introduction of the so called ‘first job contract’ (Contrat première embauche, CPE) in 2006, which sought to introduce flexible redundancy procedures for new recruits under the age of 26. The claimed objective of this measure was to be an incentive for employers to hire young people; employers were not to be trapped in a contract while considering that the young worker was not suitable for the job. The law was eventually withdrawn after massive protests from students, trade unions, and many others (FR0605059I).

Figure 1 – Youth unemployment in France and in the EU 15

Figure 1 – Youth unemployment in France and in the EU 15

Source: LFS, data for 2010 for second quarter

Recently, youth unemployment has featured prominently in all major French media. The newspaper Le Monde, for instance, reports the latest figures on youth unemployment from an international perspective. In the same paper, the economist Gérard Fonouni comments on these figures and draws a gloomy picture of the future of French young workers. First, he expects further negative effects from the planned increase in the retirement age. Second, although young workers are usually the first to (re-)enter the labour market after a recession, a large proportion of them will not be hired on regular employment terms, but as interns, on short-term contracts or as temporary agency workers, etc. According to Fonouni, young workers are not seen as a human resource, but a cheap and flexible transitional solution. Thus, they are not able to gain a real ‘first professional experience’ that would increase their chances to find stable employment. The main consequence of this is the devaluation of their qualifications, which are,given this approach, no longer worth the investment. The economist claims that a ‘radical change of mind’ is needed to tackle this development. Companies should be given financial incentives to hire young people on stable contracts during economic upturns. Those employers who fail to do so, should be punished financially.

Other publications take up the same issue. The economic newspaper Les Echos argues that the figures are misleading because of the low activity rate (7.1%) in the 15-24 years age class in France. Another economic newspaper, La Tribune, comments on the ‘alarming figures’ on youth unemployment worldwide. The daily paper France Soir discusses the strong impact of the crisis on young workers in an article dated 24th March 2009.

Opposition politicians emphasise the precarious situation of young people. A local branch of the Socialists Party (Parti Socialiste, PS), for instance, draws upon examples for high-skilled young people working in low-skilled sectors; for example an engineer who works in a fast food restaurant. The head of the Green Party, Cécile Duflot, comments that the figures show society’s “violence against young people due to the absence of perspective that [the society] offers them”. She also argues, however, that the figures are partly misleading due to the low activity rate.

There is no special reference to gender differences in the articles cited above.

1.2 Is there evidence that young people are in a particularly disadvantaged position in the labour market? If so, please summarise the key factors that lead to that situation and whether if there are gender differences for these. Is there evidence that the situation has become worse since 2008?

The National Statistics Institute (Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques, INSEE) report that in the second quarter of 2010, the unemployment rate for young people was 2.5 times higher than for the population as a whole (23.3% and 9.3% respectively). This means that 632,000 people aged between 15 and 24 years were looking for employment. Moreover, the average duration of job-seeking for the youth increased from 4.8 months in 2008 to 5.4 months in 2009 and 5.8 months in 2010. Most analysts agree that education is the key factor for success for young people entering the labour market. A 2010 INSEE report finds that young women are more successful in finding their first job than men because they are on average, more qualified. (The activity rate of young females is, however, substantially lower.)

In its latest 2009 report on training and employment, INSEE identifies two main factors that lead to high youth unemployment. First, only a very small proportion of young French people are active on the labour market, i.e. in employment or looking for a job. This is mainly due to an increase in the average length of post-secondary school education. Those who are active, on the other hand, have a relatively low level of education and/or lack formal qualifications. Hence, the proportion of low-skilled young workers, who are economically active, is relatively high. Second, the young and economically active population lacks work experience and thus are deemed less employable by employers.

The OECD identifies the transition from school to work as a crucial obstacle for young people, especially for those who have not followed a “linear education trajectory”.

“Successfully entering the labour market in France depends to a great extent on following a linear educational trajectory to obtain an initial selective diploma (from a grande école, or a university institute of technology), which are particularly highly valued by employers. Young people who deviate from this educational path have more difficulty obtaining an initial diploma that protects them from unemployment, and when entering the labour market face multiple barriers. These young people can then experience long periods of uncertainty, and those who are most disadvantaged and cannot count on help from their families have a high risk of finding themselves out of the labour market for a long time, and even experiencing poverty. Initial labour-market entry mechanisms are thus still very decisive for the rest of the career pathway” (OECD, 2009: 20).

The same report criticises the apparent incoherence of French labour market policy for young people. According to the OECD, more than 80 policy initiatives have been implemented over the last 30 years, and some of them have been replaced by other measures before their impact could be evaluated.

Figures on French youth unemployment should be read in conjunction with the interpretation above. Although there is evidence that it is very difficult for young people to find their first job, the proportion of low-skilled among the economically active youth is very high.

1.3 Have the challenges of young workers been particularly important in certain sectors? If yes, please indicate the sectors involved (up to three). Please comment on the main reasons behind the particular relevance of these issues in these sectors, and its most significant expressions.

Data on youth and total employment, by sector, are shown in Figure 2. Since the first quarter of 2008 the total number of young people in employment has decreased by 2.6%, whereas the overall employment rate is relatively stable. The largest impact of this decrease is reported from within the real estate, electricity and household activities, which show a drop in employment of more than 30 per cent of young people. Although these are dramatic changes and, in two cases, go against the overall employment trend within the sectors, the three sectors together only account for about 5 per cent of total employment.

The four largest sectors, accounting for almost 50 per cent of all employment, are manufacturing, wholesale and retail, health and social work, and public administration. In manufacturing youth employment has decreased slightly more than the overall number (-10.5% compared to -7.9% respectively). As discussed elsewhere, this is mainly because young workers are more likely to work on atypical, and thus flexible, contracts and in particular as agency workers. There is a similar trend in construction. In public administration, the difference between overall employment and youth employment is substantially larger. Whereas total employment decreased by 2.5 per cent, there were 14.4 per cent fewer employees under the age of 25 in this sector in 2010 than in 2008.

An inspection of the two other large sectors shows that where positive employment effects are recorded, young people benefit disproportionately. Such a development was recorded in wholesale and trade, and was much more distinguished in health and social work.

Figure 2 - Change in total employment by NACE sector and age group between first quarter 2008 and second quarter 2010

Figure 2 - Change in total employment by NACE sector and age group between first quarter 2008 and second quarter 2010

Source: LFS, own calculation. Data presented where available

1.4 Have the challenges of young workers been particularly important in certain regions or areas of the country? Please comment on the main reasons behind the particular relevance of these geographic differences.

Figure 3 shows youth unemployment in 2007 and 2008 by region. There are, however, no recent comprehensive data available. Some regional evidence exists nonetheless. Languedoc-Roussillon, in the south of France, is one of the most affected regions in France, with the harshest impact on young workers. Between April 2008 and April 2009 the number of job seekers below the age of 25 years of age increased by 25 per cent (13% in the whole population). Men are particularly affected (+33%) because they are more likely to work in construction and on temporary agency contracts. In Basse-Normandie, in the North, youth unemployment stood at 18.7 per cent in 2009 (16.5% in France). Although detailed data are not published, it is reported that male employment and the industrial regions have suffered most from the crisis, which may also account for the rise in youth unemployment.

Figure 3 – Youth unemployment by region for 2007 and 2008

Figure 3 – Youth unemployment by region for 2007 and 2008

Source: OECD


2.1 Please indicate whether multi-employer collective bargaining since 2008 has addressed particular issues affecting young workers. Illustrate with examples and explain the coverage of any specific agreements identified (national, sectoral, regional, etc.). Please also provide an assessment of these measures.

Multi-employer bargaining at national level has given little regard to youth employment in the crisis. One of the most comprehensive agreements on young workers at the national level was concluded in the metal sector on 7th May 2009. The social partners agreed to maintain the number of apprentices during the period 2009-10 at the same pre-crisis level of 35,000 (for 2007-08) in the sector. This pledge is assured through co-operation with the public authorities and financial incentives for employers. The agreement also reinforces the use of tutors at the workplace for employees aged 25 years or less. Tutors are older employees selected by management to help young employees develop their practical skills in the workplace. The Certified Joint Collecting Bodies (Organisme paritaire collecteur agréé, OPCA) compensate the company up to 200€ per tutor.

Although few in number, other actors have made attempts to tackle the problem. For instance the Association for the Professional Insertion of Young Graduates (Association pour Faciliter l’Insertion professionnelle des Jeunes diplômés, ADIJ) has concluded an agreement with the Assembly of French Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Assemblée des Chambres Françaises de Commerce et d’Industrie, ACFCI) on the transition between education and the labour market, which has been identified as a major obstacle for young people. This agreement does not, however, make special reference to the crisis.

As of November 2010, no assessment of these measures was available.

2.2 Please indicate whether single-employer collective bargaining and social dialogue practices at company level since 2008 have addressed particular issues affecting young workers. Please illustrate the most important of such initiatives (up to three) and also provide an assessment of these measures.

NB All initiatives listed here and elsewhere in this report are considered to be important. If they are ‘the most important’ is difficult if not impossible to assess

On 12 January 2010, the management of PSA Peugeot Citroën signed an agreement with four representative trade unions and the Group of European Automobile Unions (Groupement des syndicats européens de l’automobile, GSEA), which is a small automotive sector union largely only present at Peugeot Citroën. Although the focus of the agreement is older workers, it did include considerable measures for young workers too. In particular, the company commits itself to hire 7,300 young workers with different kinds of qualification by the summer 2010, most of them on apprenticeship contracts. Moreover, management pledges to put an emphasis on a diversified workforce in terms of age and to highlight the advantages of this. Information is not yet available on the success, or otherwise, of this measure.

The French press group Bayard signed a three-year agreement on the improvement of employment for both young and older workers on 20th January 2010 with four representative trade unions and the National Union of Journalists (Syndicat nationale des journalistes, SNJ). The social partners agreed a set of indicators for measuring the firm’s adherence to its commitments and these are reviewed by all the parties to the agreement, throughout its duration. Accordingly, at least 55 per cent of those workers aged 58 years or above who leave the company for non-economic reasons must be replaced with younger recruits (less than 30 years of age). In 2009, this figure was 39 per cent. Moreover, the employer wants to increase the number of young people on permanent contracts. Finally, the number of apprentices in the group and in its branches will be monitored regularly. As of November 2010 no evaluation of this measure is available.

French postal service La Poste signed a national agreement on young workers on 15th May 2008. The agreement stresses the need to overcome recruitment difficulties and reducing unemployment among young people. Special attention is paid to young people from the suburbs, which suffer from a particularly high rate of unemployment.

2.3 Please outline particular initiatives that have been developed by tripartite or bipartite social dialogue to help young workers. Illustrate the most important of these initiatives and, where possible, please also comment on their effectiveness in achieving their objectives.

Agreements from 2008 on improved job security for young people entering the labour or better unemployment insurance conditions (cf. OECD, 2009) predate the crisis or are not linked to it. In May 2009, however, French trade unions expressed the need to boost youth employment via joint action. The Movement of French Enterprises (Mouvement des entreprises de France, MEDEF) has this topic on its agenda for negotiations and bargaining with the trade unions (FR0906019I). One of the most important outcomes is a collective agreement launching an internet platform to support the career paths of young people which was signed in November 2009 by all representative trade unions, MEDEF and the Craftwork Employers’ Association (Union professionnelle artisanale, UPA). The website “Links to Employment” (Les liens vers l’emploi, was launched in July 2010 and collects links to information resources on training, occupations, job seeking and lifelong learning for young people.

Two major national intersectoral agreements identify the special need for support for young people in the labour market. The agreement on lifelong learning and vocational training acknowledges the need for a more efficient integration of young workers in existing training schemes. In July 2009, the social partners concluded an agreement on the consequences of the crisis on employment. Again, the specific impact on young people is emphasised and the main proposal is to encourage apprenticeship contracts to ensure employment and training for young people.

In general, it is worth noting that more attention seems to be given to employees over 55 years of age than to young people (e.g. FR1007051I).


3.1 Please indicate whether the labour market situation of young people has figured prominently on the agenda of employer associations since 2008. In the analysis of employer associations, what are the main causes of the likely disadvantaged position of young workers?

Youth unemployment does not seem to be on top of the agenda of French employer organisations. In a recently published report, however, MEDEF emphasises the importance of increased cooperation between enterprises and the national education system. The main challenge is to assist young people in their professional orientation and provide appropriate training at an early stage of their education. There are numerous initiatives at regional or local level that pursue this goal. Some examples of ‘good practice’ are given below.

The General Confederation of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (Confédération générale du patronat des petites et moyennes entreprises, CGPME) also identifies the “inappropriateness of training for the needs of the labour market” as the main reason for high youth unemployment in France. As a result of this the employer organisation for SMEs places a particular emphasis on the need for improved cooperation between schools, universities and companies. In order to achieve this, the CGPME proposes to introduce more practical training and professional orientation in the curricula of university degree programmes and suggests that knowledge transfer within the company should be improved by enforcing tutorships for young workers by experienced employees.

3.2 Have the employer associations developed any specific policies or activities beyond collective bargaining? Where relevant, please comment on any barriers or challenges identified by employer associations to improving the position of young workers.

As mentioned above, MEDEF has launched numerous activities to develop the cooperation between companies and the national education system to improve the match between the skills of young people (supply) and the needs of the labour market (demand) and three examples will be briefly presented here. In the Val d’Oise department north of Paris, MEDEF and its member companies offered 300 one-week internships allowing students in their final year of secondary education (3ème du collège, usually about 15 years old) to learn more about a company. Support was provided for students having difficulty finding a work placement and it was possible for some to obtain a bursary.

In the departments Loire-Atlantique, Sarthe, Anjou, and in the intercommunal structure Choletais in the north-west of France, MEDEF provided a similar scheme for teachers. The programme consisted of an initial training session, a one-week work placement and a final group discussion and analysis. The project aims to raise the awareness of teachers of the needs and demands of the economy and to strengthen the link between schools and local firms. A total of 70 teachers participated in the first round which began in January 2010.

A different approach to raise the interest of young people in their sector has been taken by the Plastics Industry Confederation (Fédération de la Plasturgie). This organisation announced a competition open for pupils in their final year of secondary education. In cooperation with their teachers, students were expected to develop ideas about the contribution of plastics to sustainable development and environmental protection. In total 25 classes were selected and asked to present their project at a national debate in the spring of 2010.

Although these measures are all directly aimed at young people and all took place recently, it is noteworthy that no direct reference is made to the actual financial and economic crisis.

3.3 Please indicate whether the labour market situation of young people has figured prominently on the agenda of trade unions since 2008. In the analysis of trade unions, what are the main causes of the likely disadvantaged position of young workers?

As mentioned above, the social partners seem to focus more on older workers than they do with their younger counterparts. A notable exception however is the ongoing protest against the latest pension reform proposed by the government (FR1007021I). In the course of this debate youth unemployment has certainly gained significance in the eyes of the unions (see example below). Throughout the debate one of the most popular arguments promulgated by the protesters, including those from the trade unions, students’ and pupils’ organisations, among others, was that increasing the retirement age by two years would decrease the chances of young people getting their first job.

However other issues are also considered important. Bernard Thibault, General Secretary of the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération Générale du Travail, CGT), identifies lower working conditions (precarious contracts, longer working hours, etc.) as a main disadvantage for young people on the labour market. The French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT) has argued for the extension of rights for young people entering the labour market, such as obtaining the state wage supplement (Revenu de solidarité active, RSI).

3.4 Have the trade unions developed any specific policies or activities beyond collective bargaining? Where relevant, please comment on any barriers or challenges identified by trade unions to improving the position of young workers.

In the course of the recent protests against the proposed pension reforms there have been numerous incidences of joint action between the unions and several organisations representing young people and this is considered to have altered the attitude of some social partners towards youth employment. Most notably, in late October 2010, François Chérèque, General Secretary of CFDT, proposed in a TV debate for the union to enter into interprofessional negotiations on youth employment with MEDEF. Although other unions hesitated, it was reported that MEDEF accepted the offer and an initial meeting between the two parties has been scheduled. Geneviève Roy, vice president of CGPME, stated that her organisation would participate if negotiations took place. Two members of government – the Minister of f Labour, Solidarity and Public service, Eric Woerth, and the Minister of the Economy, Industry and Employment, Christine Lagarde - welcomed the initiative.

Beyond these incidences, it is difficult to identify other initiatives by the trade unions that focus on the difficulties faced by young people. The CGT, for instance, informs young employees, especially those who are on atypical contracts, about their rights at work. The main demand of all unions, however, seems to be the equal treatment of young employees when they first enter the labour market.


4.1 Please provide information and examples on government initiatives aimed at helping young people into employment and keeping them in work.

In February 2009, the French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that job seekers, including young people, who do not qualify for unemployment benefits, (due to the fact that they have worked for a short period over the previous four years) will receive, among other things, a €500 lump-sum payment (OECD, 2009).

In January 2009, a High Commissioner for Youth (Haut Commissaire à la jeunesse) was appointed in order to demonstrate the extent of government efforts to deal with the issues surrounding the employment of young people. The Commissioner’s main focus is the extension of ‘professionalisation contracts’ (contrat de professionnalisation, for an explanation cf. FR0512101T or here) and training for young people, improving services to young people by the Public Employment Service (Pôle Emploi), and ensuring that companies receiving credits from the public recovery plan invest in the recruitment and training of young workers (ibid.).

In April 2009, President Sarkozy announced an “urgency plan for the youth”, aimed at decreasing youth unemployment by specific measures, which were:

  • an enforcement of apprenticeships;
  • the further development of ‘professionalisation contracts’ (see above);
  • the introduction of a training contract (contrat d’accompagnement-formation, CAF) that consists of theoretical training, work placements (up to 50% of time) and support in finding employment;
  • the further development of “Schools of a second chance” (École de la deuxième chance, E2C, schools for young people between 18 and 25 who have left school without a degree)
  • making internships less precarious and facilitating the transition from internships to permanent contracts;
  • boosting new employment for the youth in the private sector through employment initiative contracts (contrat initiative emploi, CIE, for more information cf. FR0104143N);
  • making use of subsidised contracts in the non-private sector in order to grant young employees the opportunity to gain initial work experience.

Mr. Sarkozy also set precise goals and objectives for his government (see the assessment below for more information). In order to support the urgency plan, the following four measures were passed by the government on 15th June 2009:

  1. Enterprises with less than 50 employees will receive €1,800 for every additional apprentice they recruit between 24th April and 30th June 2010 (extended until December 2010).
  2. Enterprises will receive €3,000 for every intern who is recruited on a permanent contract following one or several internships in the enterprise of at least eight weeks in duration. The individual concerned must not be older than 25 years of age.
  3. Enterprises will receive between €1,000 and €2,000 for every person under 26 years of age that is hired on the basis of a ‘professionalisation contract’ between 24th April and 30th June 2010 (extended until December 2010).
  4. Enterprises with more than eleven employees can apply for monthly financial support for every newly-recruited apprentice between 24th April and 30th June 2010 (extended until December 2010). The duration of this financial support is limited to 12 months and the amount is calculated by the local Public Employment Service (Pôle Emploi) on the basis of the location of the enterprise, the local minimum wage, and other factors.

4.2 Where possible, please provide an evaluation of the success of these initiatives. Where available, this should be an official evaluation. Where that is not possible, correspondents are asked to comment on their own views.

In his blog for the economic magazine Alternatives économiques (Economic Alternatives), Michel Abhervé, Associate Professor of Economics at the University Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée (Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée, UPEMLV), analysed in detail the extent to which the urgency plan succeeded in supporting young people using official data and comparing it to the government’s own objectives, as previously set out in the speech by President Sarkozy in April 2009. Table 1 presents the results of Professor Abhervé’s analysis and shows that the government failed to hit a single targets within 12 months or within the time-span announced by the President. In most cases, the results are some way off the government’s target.

Table 1 - Evaluation of the Urgency Plan for the Youth
Goals set by Sarkozy, actual achievements and difference





New apprenticeships




New professionalisation contracts












Internships to permanent contracts***




Employment initiative contracts****




Subsidised contracts


No data


Notes: Where not stated elsewhere, the evaluation period is 1 June 2009 to 1 June 2010.

* Data for January 2010; however, the goal was set at 50,000 new CAF for the 2009 entry, which is expected to be over in January 2010.

** Goals and data for 2009/10, partly forecasted.

*** Objective: 50,000 permanent contracts for interns between 24 April and September 2009. Data for September 2009. The programme was extended to June 2010; data in brackets.

**** Goals and data for second half of 2009.

Source: Michel Abhervé

QUESTION 5: Commentary

5.1 Please provide your own assessment and comments on the initiatives to address the situation of young workers in the labour market including any further information that you consider important to illustrate the current situation of those groups in your country.

A summary of the views from the actors involved offer an initial assessment. Policy-makers, employer organisations and observers (such as the OECD) have stressed the need for a better transition from education to employment, as a key area for action. Trade unions, on the other hand, have emphasised the need for young people to be employed in quality jobs. Both arguments have merit.

There is no doubt (and there is no evidence to the contrary from any trade union) that young people need to, firstly, gain employment. Although efforts have been made by the government, there is little evidence of a significant and sustainable impact to date – although youth unemployment has actually decreased in 2010, which runs counter to the trend across Europe (see Figure 1). In fact, a case could be made for supporting the view of the OECD which has implied that French policy-makers have been too hasty in introducing too many efforts i.e. they have introduced new schemes and abandoned previous initiatives before it was possible to assess their mid-term impact. The fact that the number of youth employment schemes introduced over the past 30 years exceeds 80 serves to highlight this point. Nevertheless, public policy intervention, combined with initiatives by the social partners to facilitate the transition from education to employment seems to be along the right track. However it will be absolutely crucial that the policy agenda in the future is given time to settle and become stable and is coherent.

The position from trade unions that young people deserve “better jobs” deserves attention. This concept implies a shift from simple quantitative indicators, e.g. youth (un-)employment rates, to a more in-depth analysis of the quality of employment. A further reduction in the rights of young people, the most prominent example being the CPE mentioned above, is not only politically impractical, but will probably fail to serve its intended purpose. As shown in the previous section, one of the major shortcomings of the French government’s approach within its urgency plan was the transition from internships to permanent contracts. Finally, improvements in working conditions, as well as increasing youth employment, must rise up the agenda of all the actors involved if the situation of young workers in France is to be addressed sufficiently.


  • OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development] (2009) “Jobs for Youth- Des emplois pour les jeunes – France”. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Sebastian Schulze-Marmeling, HERA

[1] These are national figures and they are not necessarily comparable with the OECD figures in the figure.

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