Jean-Paul Mulot has been editorial director at Le Figaro since 1998.  --  On Wednesday, in a commentary on the measures proposed by Dominique de Villepin’s government in response to the present social crisis in France, he disputed the notion that the main problem has been a lack of generosity in French social programs, and applauded proposals to reinvigorate apprenticeship programs.  --  According to Jean-Paul Mulot, pursuit of this plan should be accompanied by abandonment of the long-held principle that all young people should remain in secondary school to the age of 16, which has been the law in France for the past 60 years....

[Translated from Le Figaro (Paris)]


By Jean-Paul Mulot

Le Figaro (Paris)
November 9, 2005

We're hearing a lot about the State's lack of engagement in the banlieues. To hear some people talk, this would explain the violence that has devastated the housing projects for several days now.

If the despair affecting young people is beyond dispute, the explanation of this discouragement by social policies that are too miserly is highly contestable. France, along with Sweden, is one of the most generous countries in Europe in this regard. Each year we devote one third of our wealth, or 450 billion euros, to "social protection," a term as vast as it is barbarous but which means what it says. In twenty years, this effort has not diminished, it has even doubled. For the so-called "sensitive" zones alone, more than 8 billion euros is distributed in assistance and subsidies.

At the same time, the situation has nonetheless turned from a bad dream into a nightmare. The rate of families falling into excessive levels of debt has swelled from 90,000 to 165,000 a year, and has now reached a total of 1,500,000. The number of those on minimum wage has gone from 400,000 to 1,100,000. In this devastated landscape, young people occupy the least desirable position. In the neighborhoods of "sensitive" urban zones, the unemployment rate among those 16-24 years old has gone from 25% to 50%. Each year, nearly 100,000 children begin en sixième [i.e. pupils 10, 11, or 12 years of age beginning secondary school] without knowing how to read, write, or count. And the grandes écoles [i.e. elite insitutions admission to which is achieved through competitive exams and whose programs generally last five years; these include L’École polytechnique (“X”), a number of engineering schools admission to which is achieved through a common “Mines-Ponts” exam, HEC (École des hautes études commerciales), ENA (École nationale d’administration), ENS (École normale supérieure, etc.)] despite measures taken by institutions like Sciences-po [the familiar name for IEP, or Instituts d’études politiques], are three times less accessible to students from modest backgrounds than in the 1950s.

These figures explain that far from limiting itself to the neighborhoods considered to be “hot,” the virus has spread through all the projects. The crisis we are now going through does not concern the banlieues alone, it is a social crisis that is reflected in the housing projects.

The plan for urban renewal (cohésion sociale) that Jean-Louis Borloo presented has taken this as its point of departure. In order to get out of this impasse, he has identified a single path, the return to activity. This is an absolute priority, he said, “the best bastion against social implosion.” If it be true that frictional unemployment is inevitable in a world in which every day 10,000 jobs disappear at the same time that 10,000 others are created, long-term unemployment and the unemployment of youth looking for their first job are gangrenes.

In order to struggle against this maladay, the minister of employment and urban renewal proposed, along with other measures, raising to 500,000 (compared to 350,000 today) the number of apprentices. Today this initiative is courageously brought forward by Dominique de Villepin. It was about time. In 2003, hiring through apprenticeship contracts fell 2%, even as skilled workers and PME [=Petites et Moyennes Entreprises, ‘small businesses’] move heaven and earth to find the rare pearl their businesses need.

A single stone was missing from the edifice, really: shake up the single collège [i.e. secondary school] and have done with the myth of obligatory school for everyone to the age of 16. The development of pre-apprenticeships beginning at 14 is today the most promising action plan among the prime minister’s proposals. It will not solve every problem. But it has the merit of being a lot more concrete than the restoration of subsidies to neighborhood associations.

Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003
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