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France's Unemployment Woes Mirror Europe's Job Crunch

Lisa Bryant

After weeks of demonstrations, the French government has scrapped a controversial job law that sparked furious debate about the country's employment practices, particularly the reluctance of employers to hire inexperienced young people. Because it is so difficult to fire workers, many French businesses are reluctant to hire new ones. Other European countries face similar labor woes.

Lana Strika graduated last summer from Paris 5 University with honors and a Master's degree in clinical psychology. The 24-year-old Parisian speaks five languages - three fluently - and has had several internships at French health centers.

That kind of resume should be landing Strika plenty of job offers. But so far, her search for a full-time job has been disappointing.

Strika says she's sent out plenty of letters to hospitals inquiring about positions. She's gotten nice replies, but no job offers. Many prospective employers tell her there are no jobs to be had.

Frustration over the job crunch facing young French like Strika exploded onto the streets last month, as angry youths protested a new law designed to give employers incentives to hire young workers - the incentive being that they could fire them, too.

On Monday, the center-right French government rescinded the law. Revised legislation includes financial aid to employers who hire disadvantage youths.

Roughly 14 percent of French between the ages of 15 and 26 are not in school and are not employed. That figure is far higher among ethnic immigrants and in poorer parts of France.

But Simon Tilford, an economist at the Center for European Reform, says France is not alone.

"There is a problem of youth employment right across Europe. It is particularly bad in France, because there is very little in the way of training. So, people leave school ill-prepared for the labor market. The other problem is the very high levels of employment protection," explained Tilford.

It is very difficult to fire full-time workers, not only in France, but elsewhere in Europe. And politicians are reluctant to push through unpopular labor reforms that might cost them the next election.

Those reforms that do succeed are achieved with difficulty. Workers in southwestern Germany, for example, finally agreed earlier this month to work longer hours for less pay. But that came after a long strike.

Glenda Quintini, an economist at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, says labor reforms have been far less successful elsewhere in Europe.

"Permanent jobs are untouchable in many countries, so firing restrictions are very high. You have high costs for firing somebody. You risk going to court, etc. So, those jobs remain very protected," said Quintini.

European businesses are getting around these constraints by hiring workers on short-term and part-time contracts. In many countries, companies have trial periods, before they agree to hire on a permanent basis.

France is no exception. There are a number of different ways French businesses can hire employees on a non-permanent basis. The now-abandoned youth labor law was the only one in Europe specifically targeting young French workers.

Regardless of what legislation the government comes up with, young French, like Giullaume Violet, are worried about their future.

Violet is the chapter head of France's national student's union at Paris 13, a public university in the Paris suburbs. He says, every generation has done better than the previous one. Now, he worries he will not be as well-off as his parents. He wants to be a public school history teacher. But there are few state jobs available.

A number of French have gone abroad to look for work.

Catherine Le Yaouanc, head of the British Chamber of Commerce in France, says she gets a steady stream of young French job seekers.

"The big difference between Britain and France is about diplomas," she explained. "If you don't have a diploma, it's very difficult to get a job in France. It's easier if you have the right qualifications, and know the right people. In Britain, it's more flexible, whether you have a diploma or not."

Lana Strika is also considering looking for work overseas. She has managed to find work in France - but only for 12 hours a week, and it does not pay well. But Strika still hopes for her dream job as a full-time psychologist at a hospital.

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