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Friday, June 4, 2010

Unemployment in France

I remember in my first year that I came to work in France, I somehow got into a conversation with an older lady regarding unemployment in this country and how it works. I had always heard that it was generous and even a bit ridiculous, but even then I was still caught off-guard by what she relayed to me.

She told me that she had been working for a financial institution here in Paris, and had just given birth to her second or third child. Even though the state provides very generous maternity leave, she felt she could have used a little more time to be able to take care of her young children. She asked her boss politely to lay her off so that she could collect unemployment. She said that her severance pay was quite generous- something like two years with the same pay that she received while working. All she had to do was participate in three job interviews over a period of six months to continue to receive these benefits. She was not obliged to actually take any of the jobs, she just had to show that she was making an effort to find a new position. Apparently it takes an average French person about ten months to find a job, so even then that could give her fourteen months to tend to her kids without really worrying about finding employment.

The story which I recounted may sound completely outrageous for someone not used to the French system, but this story could embody the situations of many other people in France. The unemployment rate hovered near 10% between 2000 and 2008. For one of the largest economies in the world, this unemployment rate is deceptively high. The United States, by comparison, was between 5 and 6% during those years. The difference is that many of the people in France could find work, but because of the generous unemployment benefits, have the option to wait until an ideal job opening presents itself, while many other countries do not have the benefit of this luxury.

This past winter, I was fortunate (or unfortunate depending on how one looks at it) enough to be able to observe this phenomenon first hand. Julie had a seasonal contract for a boat tour company here in Paris that ended at the beginning of November. A couple of days after the contract was finished, Julie went to a meeting to inform the state that she was now unemployed. She brought in her pay stubs as evidence of what she earned over the past few months, signed a few documents, and that was all it took. She was told that over the first three months that she would receive 95% of her average paycheck over the last year, 85% between months four and six, and then 75% between months six and twelve. The only thing she had to do on her end was to apply for jobs (once again, she needed to complete three in six months, if she had not found work before that point) and attend one-on-one job counseling meetings when requested.

To me, it seemed like a gift. You worked hard for a few months, and then you are rewarded for it by being paid to sit on your ass for a few months. Not only does the state provide for you financially, they want you to be able to keep yourself occupied with your newfound leisure time. Julie was allowed to go to any public gym for free. She was allowed to go to most museums for free. It made unemployment seem very attractive.

Of course, few things in life that seem so perfect are, in fact, perfect. Several of Julie's other colleagues were in a similar situation once their seasonal contracts ended, and for the most part, they seemed disproportionately depressed in light of what I saw as an amazing system. Many of them were on unemployment for the second or third time, and they seemed to be very tired of the routine; find a short term contract, work for a few months, go on unemployment again, and then start over, almost always working in the same field as before. Unemployment amongst those under 25 increased 41.1% between 2008 and 2009, and I would imagine that those figures would be similar for citizens under 30 as well (BBC News, June 25, 2009). It seems at times that almost every person that I have met around my age has taken advantage of unemployment in this country at least once. This could be another article subject in of itself.

In France, it is pretty difficult to transition from one field of work to another. If you studied to work in a certain area, chances are you will be stuck there for life. Julie tried to work in caf├ęs and bars, and all of them said they needed someone with experience. However, when she put up an add on the website for a hostess agency, she received 10 calls in the first hour with offers for jobs. She eventually turned off her phone because some of them were calling multiple times. It's demoralizing to consider that when entering unemployment, you have seemingly been freed from the shackles of a previous job that you hated, only to go back and work the same position a few months later.

Technically, one can work a part-time job while on unemployment, but one has to be careful that they do not earn too much money. For example, last year, Julie's mother was riding unemployment and was able to take a position helping at a veterinarian's office a few hours a week. Though it was only a couple of hundred euros a month, it was a nice addition to what she was receiving from the state for unemployment. She was obliged to report her hours and earnings each month so that she would continue to receive her unemployment check. Unfortunately, one of those months, she happened to earn too much to qualify for assistance. To make matters more complicated, the state informed her of this a month late. The money that they wanted back was already spent. She was forced to write a check to the government and then had to quit her part time job so that she could actually earn more by doing less, that is, by not working.

To conclude, the unemployment system in France is a remarkable system in that it allows people to live a relatively similar lifestyle while unemployed as they did while working a full time job. It can be a welcome reprieve from the stresses of the working world and allow some time to consider the pros and cons of future prospects. However, from those with whom I have spoken, most that are in the unemployment system would rather be employed as opposed to sitting at home, waiting for their next unemployment check to show up in their bank account.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at