The situation on the labour market in France*


By Eric Heyer

The French economy is facing a number of imbalances, with the two main ones being:

– a public deficit that at end 2012 is likely to come to about 4.5 GDP points, or close to 100 billion euros;

– a lack of jobs, which is leading to mass unemployment.

While the first point is the object of great attention, and while it has been and remains the main or even the sole concern of every EU summit over the last three years and is at the heart of the European strategy on the crisis, it must be acknowledged that this is not unfortunately the case for the second point. However, it is not unreasonable to ask whether the priority in a country as rich as France should actually be to reduce the deficit at all costs even if this may worsen the plight of society’s most vulnerable and make it more difficult for them to access the labour market.

Since the beginning of the crisis in early 2008, the French economy has destroyed more than 300,000 jobs, and the number of unemployed as defined by the International Labour Office has increased by 755,000. More than 2,700,000 French are now without jobs, i.e. 9.6% of the active population.

And this figure undoubtedly underestimates the real situation. The French economy is currently creating only mini part-time jobs that don’t last long; in the last quarter, 4.5 million job contracts were signed: 3 out of 4 of these were contracts lasting less than one month (mostly 1 day to 1 week). Someone who signed one of these contracts and is looking for a job at the end of the same month is not counted as unemployed. Their inclusion would increase the jobless numbers and push the French economy a little further into mass unemployment.

Moreover, and this is more disturbing, the unemployed are getting older while remaining jobless – the number of long-term unemployed is continuing to shoot upwards – and thereby lose out in terms of  both job skills and financially as they shift from unemployment benefits onto the social minima; in a study we conducted at OFCE for the National Observatory on Poverty and Social Exclusion (ONPES), we estimated that in France 100 additional unemployed during this crisis will lead to 45 more people in poverty in 2012. Thus, even stabilizing unemployment would not lead to halting the deterioration of people’s situation – on the contrary.

It is therefore urgent to reverse current trends with respect to employment and unemployment.

The surest way to do this is to put the French economy onto a trajectory of dynamic growth: recall that low but positive growth is not enough for the French economy to create jobs again, as, given gains in productivity, the country’s economy needs to grow by more than 1% in order to unleash a spiral of job creation. Moreover, given the continuation of demographic growth and the postponement of the retirement age, the labour force is increasing by 150,000 people every year. It is thus necessary to create more than 150,000 jobs in France before unemployment will begin to fall, which corresponds to growth of over 1.5%.

However, in light of the austerity policies being implemented in France and by our European partners, this level of growth seems unthinkable in 2012 and 2013.

So how can a further explosion of unemployment be stopped in the near future?

The first step would be to change Europe’s strategy by establishing, among other things, a “more moderate” austerity.

The second step would be to adopt the strategy Germany is using for the crisis, that is to say, to reduce working time by massively resorting to part-time work and to partial unemployment schemes. Remember that 35% of German employees are hired part-time, as against 17% in France. Furthermore, during the crisis 1.6 million Germans have been on a partial unemployment programme, compared with 235,000 in France. All this has helped Germany to keep unemployment down during the crisis.

The last solution is to use what in France is called the “social treatment of unemployment”. As the private sector is still destroying jobs, the public sector would offset part of this by creating subsidized jobs.

The government seems to be taking this last path: 100,000 “jobs for the future” will be created in 2013 and 50,000 in 2014.

In the short term, given the economic situation, this strategy seems to be the most effective and the least expensive. However, in the medium term, it cannot replace a policy of growth.


* This text is taken from a series of reports by Eric Heyer for the programme “Les carnets de l’économie” on France Culture radio. It is possible to listen to the series on France Culture.