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France: The Precarious Generation
Au revoir job security


Singeli Agnew and Charlotte Buchen

Singeli Agnew (left) worked as a writer and photographer before returning to U.C. Berkeley to study documentary film. Agnew has reported from Nepal and India, and this year headed out to the American highways to make a film about migratory beekeepers. Charlotte Buchen (right) worked in New York at InCite Pictures and Milky Way Media as an associate producer. She is currently completing a documentary about the psychological wounds of war, and finishing her master's degree at U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.

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Length: 16:08

Election season in France this year has provided high drama. As the French head to the polls, they are not simply choosing their next president but choosing an identity. The country is facing deep schisms over economic and social policy, and each candidate represents a very different future for the Gallic nation of 61 million people.

Caught between providing a comfortable social welfare state and competing in a global market, France's treasured social model is under threat. The French system has long provided a safety net for the weakest in society, and more than 50 percent of the country's GNP is spent maintaining this status quo. France also has rigid labor laws to protect workers, but these laws make it hard for employers to fire people, so they are reluctant to take on full-time staff. This has done nothing to ease the nation's unemployment rate of 10 percent -- a figure that is closer to 20 percent among the young.

What will remain if the system is reformed? And who will bear the brunt of these changes?

It's a touchy subject. In the spring of 2006, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin set off protests of more than 3 million people when he proposed a labor law reform called the CPE to jump-start the stagnant labor market and help youth unemployment. But so far any attempt at reform has brought millions on to the streets.

It's this contradiction that drew us to Paris last July to cover the story from the perspective of regular French people with diverse views about work and the social model.

We met Olivier Gaultier, an optimistic businessman who wants change. He is a firm believer in the free-market system and would like to see the French attitudes toward work and business change.

"You have to recognize that it's necessary to adjust, and to have people leaving the company as well," said Gaultier. "You don't like it, but this is part of the economic life."

We also met Guillaume, a passionate and philosophical young activist, who has been a major voice behind the group Generation Precaire. Guillaume wants accountability from the baby boomers, who he believes should share equally the burden of debt that his generation has to shoulder.

"The people who give us advice by saying, 'The world changes, it is necessary to adapt' -- they are of a quiet generation, who had a quiet life. [They are] very comfortable," said Guillaume of the boomer generation. "It's easy to preach lessons when you were educated at a time when things were prosperous and stable."

Ultimately, everyone we spoke to agreed that something must change. But, so far, the country's political leaders have failed to build consensus around comprehensive reform. (For political analysis of this stagnation, read the interview with political scientist Bruno Palier in the sidebar. Palier recently coauthored Changing France, and told us that change is possible.)

Whoever is elected must help the country resolve this conflict between what the French often refer to as "capitalism sauvage," or American-style capitalism, and a system that provides at least some of the security of the old social model.

Singeli Agnew and Charlotte Buchen

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About FRONTLINE/World Fellows
"France: The Precarious Generation" by Charlotte Buchen and Singeli Agnew is the latest production of the FRONTLINE/World Fellows program, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It is part of our ongoing effort to identify and mentor the next generation of video, print and online journalists.

This report from France is part of a new series of Fellows stories for the 2006/2007 season. The program, started in 2003, so far has produced 19 multimedia stories by talented young journalists, who have traveled to Guatemala, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Haiti, Venezuela, Peru, Mexico, Egypt, Israel, Rwanda and Sicily, and journeyed across Europe by train from Istanbul to Paris. You can see them all here.

As part of the latest Fellows projects, made possible through our partnership with the U.C. Berkeley, Columbia and Northwestern Graduate Schools of Journalism, we will be bringing you stories from Liberia, China, Russia, Uganda and Morocco in the coming months.

Please Note: Comments/Reactions for this Rough Cut story are now closed.


Bethany Carson - Allen, TX
It would be a shame for France to lose such an integral part of their culture and society as their supurb workers' rights. Short working hours, long lunch breaks, vacations, and job security contribute immensely to the overall French way of life. It is important that this culture be maintained in an era of globalization, or societies become dangerously alike -- only imitations of each other. However, France has a high unemployment rate, especially in impoverished sections of the country. This may be in part because of the large impact of American companies on the global economy. American standards of comparatively long working hours, few vacations, and less job security are appealing to foreign corporations, who often hire American workers, stealing jobs from people of their own country. The video pointed out that only medium and small-sized companies still hire exclusively French workers. Thus, although the CPE law would remove some traditional worker protections, it would create more jobs by making the French worker more valuable to corporations and would help boost the French economy. I think the best solution would be a compromise between social and economic standards, so France can maintain its culture but still move forward as a competitive country in the global economy.

Olivier Teste - Paris, Paris
Tony :You said : "They have no future in their social system and no one to support it."How could you affirm that ? Personnal experience or ignorance?I guess it is ignorance, you've got to learn about the whole thing behind our social system, meaning French history.Now that system might not be perfect, but it increases the chance for poor and/or unlucky people to survive, get medical attention, and a great chance to get back into the "active" work life.Liberal economics is the solution. We all know that, but so far what example is around ? The American system? No, nobody here wants it. As somebody else said, we are strongly attached to our way of life and its pleasant pace.Let's work to find a balance between the actual social and economic system here and the American one, then we will be right.

Henry T - Melbourne, Australia
I'm an Australian living and working in Japan. I see that the same economic and social debate in France is occurring here in Japan and in Australia. I sometimes wonder if countries with developed economies are having to give up some of their wealth and standards of living to compete with countries like China. Is there enough wealth and resources in this world to accommodate a couple billion more people who aspire to have the same standard of living that bourgeois French, Australian or Japanese enjoy?

Lia Boulay - Le Mans, FRANCE
Thank you so much for this article! I'm a young French woman and the French crisis is exactly what has been described in this article. In France, we need to change, we need to be more liberal but in the same time we don't want to work all the time and think about money, money and... more money!!! We want to enjoy time with our family, we want to keep our very long lunches or dinners without any cell phone ringing when we are eating!!! I'm okay to work more (the 35-hours work week law has to be removed!) for more money, I'm okay to sign "precarious" contracts but it's frightening. What is the goal of civilization??? Do we need civilization if life is just about money??? We are a socialist country, my great grand-parents fought for worker's rights. I have the impression we need to survive in a world of money. So we need to create jobs, we need to be more competitive but we also need to keep our RIGHTS. Liberty, equality, fraternity is our motto. It's our French identity. I don't want to be a selfish girl who would be obsessed by money or my personnal success and who would not care about poor people around her. But I think the CPE contract was a good solution, we need to try something. I did not understand all these middle class students rioting last spring.Concerning all the riots in the French suburbs in fall 2005 it was about unemployement but mostly because the police have a lot of power in France and many of them are racist and don't like immigrant people or young people in general. Police can be very violent and you can't do nothing against policemen since they are protected by the state (and by Nicolas Sarkozy!). The power of the police and racism are important problems in France. Sarkozy supports the police and rich people and Segolene Royal is a socialist woman so there's a big struggle now in France to know who is going to be the new president of France in May 2007. If Sarkozy is elected I'm a bit worried. Maybe he'll create new jobs, but there are going to be tensions with young people. He's conservative and very strict and supports the police a lot, and you know that the French people are a revolutionnary country. We are all the time going down to the street when we disagree with a new law or if we think our rights are in danger or if we disagree with a presidential decision. Segolene Royal seems nicer and more comprehensive but can she change our country and gives us jobs?Thank you again for this article and video. I hope France will be able to keep important social advantages and accept some economic changes too.

Princeton, NJ
I really appreciated this article. While the French way of life is surely unsustainable in the face of globalization, some of my colleagues here in the USA are so focused on work that they have to be forced to take an occasional vacation. Somewhere in between is a happy middle.

V Kash - Delhi, India
A very poignant and timely piece highlighting one of the major problems facing France as they approach their presidential election. A nation battling its internal values while facing an increasingly competitive global economic environment. A nation that has given us some of the finest food and wine and which treasures its culture of the arts but has become a cliche for their 35-hour work weeks...

Kirk Wilson - Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Wow! I thought a 40 hour work week was easy street. I love Frontline. Thanks guys, very informative. My heart goes out to the immigrant groups and the to the entrepreneur. I do feel for the younger generation. 'Growing up' is tough.

elisabeth schneider - Bend, oregon
Businesses in France pay way too many taxes. Their "charges" need to be cut so businesses can hire more people. Also, salaries need to be raised and good workers paid more. French employers do not show enough appreciation toward good employees. Also, stagieres who do internships needs to be paid for the work they do. Too many employers abuse those young people by not paying them for the work they do and I think it is outrageous! Labor laws in France need to change so people can work as much as they want and as long as they want. At last, the French need to hire someone because of their competences, not because they know one of their relatives. France needs to adopt the American labor system.

Ashely McKay - Bennettsville, SC
I thought the piece was awesome, I learned some things about France that I never knew. it makes me realize how good we have it and why people in the society of France go on strike.

Thomas Maika - Sea Bright, NJ
When I was in my teens, and in college, I did what I could to find meaningful work. Sometimes I had to do hard work like mixing concrete, delivering pizzas to fellow college students and being a waiter when I could have been out having fun on my weekends. At times, we have to "eat crow" and innovate to educate ourselves out of our economic dilemnas. Upon receiving my college degree at the age of 24, I had to apply my previously earned (menial) experience in being organized, handling money and in running and completing projects. These menial jobs I had throughout college helped me to keep active, be social, earn money, save money and to get ahead with a good career after college. I do not feel that the French government, the British government nor any government for that matter has a responsibility to set up expensive social programs to see to it that people can have a job or can keep a job. It's up to the individual to make good decisions, develop good business contacts, and to innovate and learn what ever business they decide to enter. Do not get angry. No one else can do it for you. Everytime one receives a free ride, human nature takes over and we rest on our laurels. We people should not yearn for the freedom to qualify for a Federal Program, we should strive for a better society built upon hard work, pluck, good relationships and innovation. Leave delivering the mail to the governments of the world. That's all they are truly good for.

Marc Randal - New York, NY
The reporter quite clearly displays her subjective values from the onset when she says that "France has the best health care system in the world" . Indeed, I see that many writers below are committing the same error so common among supposedly objective media outlets. If this is somehow an opinion piece, then say so, for dressing up subjectivity as objective documentary journalism smacks or arrogance and naivety. Also, as an academic matter, when evaluating health care, economists do not talk of `best' and `worst' , but rather talk in terms of efficiency and marginal cost/benefit analysis using theoretical tools. Employing this framework, then, healthcare is a far more sophisticated issue than it is being labeled here.

Richard Rider - San Diego, CA
Like any pyramid scheme, France's redistribution system is doomed to fail -- along with the "safety nets" of many other "developed" countries. The number of retirees is growing rapidly, and darned if they don't live a lot longer than predicted!
An unintended consequence is that, in an effort to keep the con game going a bit longer, France has brought in MILLIONS of Muslim workers and their families, while the white European birth rate plummets. France will become a Muslim country with Muslim laws within the century.I wonder if they'll dynamite Notre Dame. Nahhh -- too good a tourist attraction.

Herv - London, UK
Overall a good documentary even it does not touch on other big chronic issues in France such as, for instance, the two speeds education system. One thing though. The CPE revolt and those in the banlieues before did NOT bring the country to a halt. This is the extreme image that the international and predominantly US press did pass in order to sell. I do not think your video needed to sustain this myth. The country was not burning down, just cars in the "banlieues".

charles stubbart - carbondale, illinois usa
When I first watched this video, I laughed at the foolish French students. Imagine protesting about a law to loosen archaic French regulations about employment. No one here in America could understand what motivated the French students. But then I thought about it more.In our classes here at the University we generally talk about the pace of global business, about the increasing complexity of management, about efficiency, and about uncertainty having increased. Yet there is no serious discussion in America about the stress and insecurity this situation breeds among the college educated workforce. Although we have always been willing to abandon those without education or special skills, we have never considered a threat to the college educated But I now see that the global changes: increased competition, downsizing, offshoring, etc represent a threat to young persons too.

Olivier Garcia - Los Angeles, CA
First of all, I want to congratulate the journalist on this great documentary. I believe that the French economy needs to have a more liberal approach towards open market operations and the laissez-faire theory. If France does not follow the rest of the world with respect to economic advancement and globalization, it will have a greater economic downturn than what it is experiencing today. The other side of the coin is that the CODE DU TRAVAIL was manufactured to protect the socialist system, ideals, culture, people etc., and the French Government has failed in maintaining this promise, and desire to take a more capitalistic technique on the aforementioned topic. French youth and people have been hardwired to believe and react to the concept of government as being their tutor and guardian. I believe that this way of thinking is a double edge sword, but I respect, and love the French...Of course, the United States [has its own economic problems]: young people face: low wages, no pensions, no healthcare, and it has become harder and harder for individuals 20 to 30-yrs, to find that dream job after a "rampart" college education. Instead, young Americans end up living from their parents limited income, and take any job that can pay for beer and more...especially the American male.

- san francisco, ca
An 85 percent voter turnout for the first round of France's presidential election?Incredible. That puts the U.S. electoral system to shame. Of course, the French get to vote on a Sunday and they have many more candidates to choose from. But it seems like the French care more about democracy than Americans do.

Beatrice Rocca Stein - Scarsdale, NY
In less than 16 minutes this video manages to give you a perfect sense of the tensions, issues and social & generational gap that France has right now. The very high percentage of voters in the presidential election this last Sunday shows, just like this video, that all generations are very concerned for their future, and will have a very hard time to find the perfect balance between keeping some social advantages and accepting some economical changes.

- san francisco, ca
An 85 percent voter turnout in the first round of the French presidential election? Incredible. That puts the U.S. electoral system to shame.
Of course, they vote on Sunday and they have many more candidates to choose from. Still, it appears the French value democracy more than we do.

Mike Connor - Baltimore, MD
It's about time that ignorant Americans wake up. Their social system was long traded away for a tooth and nail existence that left them fighting amongst themselves for the crumbs left over from hyper-greedy multinationals seeking hyper-profit margins. The question the young activist asked in the beginning of the piece is what escapes only those who have never known anything more than the meat-hook reality of cut throat capitalism that the French young adults fear...What is the purpose of civilization if it leads to more and more work, and less and less pay?

Tony Rasavage - DuBois, PA
It's about time the French wake up. They have no future in their social system and no one to support it. They better start having babies or there will be no French, only Islamic children and most of them are on the dole.

Albany, CA
I thought the piece was good, I learned something about France I didn't know and how the work force is changing. It makes me realize why people in France go on strike, the gains that have been made are nice for those with jobs, but it seems that national promise is fading for the up and coming workers and immigrants.