Being young in France (and most of Europe for that matter)

As some of you know, I am French. It’s OK, it happens to good people too. I am not actually ‘ethnically’ French but I grew up there from the tender age of 2 months and stayed until I was 18. I don’t want to spark up an assimilation debate but I am pretty sure that makes me French.

Even though I consider myself bilingual, French is really my first language. I went to French school, I had French friends, I went on French holidays. As a typical Parisian, I ate baguette, loved stinky cheese and went on holidays in the French Alps to the detriments of any further exploration of the rest of the country I was calling my home. Tragic, I know, but unfortunately not unusual.

In spite of my recurrent nostalgia for France (most recently fulfilled by listening to Edith Piaf day in and day out), it was my decision to leave France at the tender age of 18. Perhaps it is the product of coming from a union of two immigrants (my mother is American and my father Lebanese), but I felt I had more to offer the world than I did to France.

This decision was in large part informed by the education system in France. It’s a hard slog of cramming and mild humiliation. I now know that, I thought this was what education was at the time. You are mediocre until told otherwise and more importantly, you are exactly the same as everyone else. No exceptions made.

Also, the French are only interested in educating the French for France. This has come to the fore very recently (see article in Le Monde), with the immigration minister, Claude Gueant, drafting up legislation that restricts access to French education for foreign students and also restricts their access to the French labour market post-graduation. After all these years, it seems like the French have forgotten both the value of exporting high-skilled knowledge workers and of attracting these same people from other nations. Perhaps there is no word for ‘brain drain’ in French…

It’s no surprise the education system in France is so homogenising and celebrates conformity rather than individuality. It was designed in the early 19th Century by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte himself. Having succeeded in taking control of a country in shambles post 1789 and duly proceeding to invade all of France’s neighbours, Napoleon realised that ‘educated’ people had been eradicated by the Revolution. So he decided to design a system of education that could bring every Tom, Dick and Harry (or rather Thomas, Richard et Henri) up to scratch. His brilliant scheme was called the ‘baccalaureat’, a standardised examination (incredibly difficult, even more so at the time) that would guarantee a level of competence across the country. This was coupled with the later invention of the ‘grandes ecoles’, a sort of fast track to professional stardom, designed to create specialists in engineering, mining, governing and writing.

This system is still alive and well in France (surprisingly) although some would argue that it has lost a little bit of its elitism (and I think they mean that as a negative thing). School is a big deal in France. Whole generations are shaped by their academic achievements. The flip side of this is, of course, that is success is a sign of your belonging to the French national project, your failure to conform or succeed in this framework is a sign of your not belonging. Failing academically is practically an indictment on your Frenchness.

There are a few moments in history where this struggle has come to the fore. 1968 is the most memorable of those, but I argue that the current status of youth in France today is not that far off. For those who didn’t go through the system of ‘grandes ecoles’, they’re disgruntled for the lack of recognition of their choices and professional careers. For those who did go through with it, they’re faced with a real lack of opportunity in the current economic climate. And the irony of it all is that they’re being poached faster than you can say ‘boo’ by the UK and the US. French-educated engineers are very sought after in the finance industry.

How did it come to this? How can a country be so disengaged from its youth, therefore from its future? and how does this impact on ‘Brand France’ looking into the future?

I offer a few partial responses to this below. I am no expert, but I’ve been watching this ridiculous situation unfold over the past ten years, and I think it boils down to how France (or rather the French Government) decides to design the reintegration of youth into the workforce.

First driver behind this situation is France’s focus on its past and the impact this has on its culture. I am comfortable with asserting that France is more interested in the preservation of its heritage and its past than in the development of its future. Their resistance to thinking strategically about their future is informed by the general French rejection of ‘globalisation’.  France is reluctant to partake in any movement that lessens the value and relevance of French culture, and globalisation is essentially seen as the anglo-saxon trojan horse for world domination. It’s not entirely fiction but there is no way to resist it in the long-run. Not even through silly language preservation laws (see ‘Loi Toubon‘).

Second, the French see youth as a threat and haven’t the faintest idea of how to engage youth in French civil society. Low youth turn-out at elections, riots, high-drop out rates are all symptoms of this larger malaise that exists between youth and the French ‘mainstream’. The distrust of youth has resulted in a particularly dysfunctional and strange labour market where young people are actually offered proper jobs but are instead given these phoney ‘youth contracts’ which command considerably lower salaries and virtually no job security. A recent Le Monde article has captured this brilliantly.

This leads me to my third point, which is French society has essentially been shaped by the squeakiest wheel, our current baby boomer generation. In a country where unions are a major force to be reckoned with and union membership is high amongst the older generations, labour laws are incredibly skewed towards the protection of jobs for the previous generation. It is virtually impossible to fire anyone for incompetence in France and hiring is laden with associated costs such as Social Security contributions and other employer-based taxes, which makes the workforce incredibly static and turn-over low.

So what does this mean for Brand France? Whereas Finland has based its whole value and proposition and brand on the export of highly qualified and adaptable workers, what is France going to do to address this imbalance between its elitist education system and the lack of opportunity for French people within France?

A recent New Yorker article posits that Sarkozy as a president is actually quite American in his world view, especially with regards to de-regulation of the labour market and free-market economics. But in its current state, this discourse is the preserve of the gainfully employed. Will a second mandate shift the thinking to France’s youth? Will Sarkozy ever grasp the strategic importance of youth to the sustainability and the future of his beloved country? Only time or the election results will tell.

This is not an issue specific to France, far from it. The European debt crisis has revealed that other countries such as Spain and Italy are also struggling to engage their well-educated youth into the workforce in a meaningful way, with youth unemployment figures upwards of 20% in some cases. I really believe this is a design project in its truest sense, where the design process is moved upstream to shape a new architecture of decision-making to underpin meaningful change.

Perhaps Nicolas will read my blog and take me up on my offer?

Fingers crossed.

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