Held back at home, French try their hand abroad
By Brian Rohan
PARIS (Reuters) – Despite top grades at law school, two
years as an intern and success at the bar exam, Simon Caille
faced the prospect only of temporary work and low-paid
assistantships as a new lawyer in Paris.
Instead, brandishing the English he picked up along the
way, Simon landed an internship in New York that paid better
than some entry-level salaries in Paris. Soon he had a
full-time position as a lawyer for an investment bank.
“That’s the way it should work in France, but the truth is
you spend almost a year looking for a real job offer,” he said
during a visit to Paris. “Everyone knows that hanging around
too long is unattractive to employers, so I just left.”
France’s famously rigid labor market survived intact this
spring when street protests tripped up Prime Minister Dominique
de Villepin’s proposal to liberalize job contract laws for
Its inflexibility is blamed for high unemployment and has
prompted an exodus of young, well-educated French to look for
Once only an option for the adventurous few, the growing
globalization of the labor market has made the leap across
borders, channels and oceans far more inviting for those with a
good education, some language skills and get-up-and-go.
The Foreign Ministry estimated in 2004 that the number of
French citizens living abroad had surged by almost 30 percent
since 1992, from roughly 1.6 million to 2.2 million. Labour
market experts say most of the job-seekers are young.
“They’re looking for a hiring system that’s more flexible
than in France. And they’re heading to countries where the
‘casual job’ culture is more developed,” says Olivier Galland,
a sociologist at the French National Research Center.
Last autumn’s riots by poor suburban youths — mostly
children of immigrants — highlighted youth unemployment of 22
percent overall and 40 percent or more in some poor suburbs.
Villepin’s law would have made it easier for employers to
hire and fire workers and so, he argued, give them greater
incentives to create jobs.
Economists said it would have had only a minor effect on
joblessness, but in any case Villepin’s theory never made it
Protests by students and labor unions erupted against the
erosion of France’s formidable legal protections for employees,
threatening the government and forcing President Jacques Chirac
to cancel the law.
BRAIN DRAIN OR BRAIN GAIN?
“France may remain attractive for older people who set
themselves up under the sun in some beautiful countryside, but
it’s no longer the case for a young, dynamic workforce,” said
Herve Le Bras, a sociologist at the School for Advanced Social
Studies in Paris.
He says globalization is opening doors for young French
abroad, but not for foreigners in France.
“If people were leaving simply due to European integration
or globalization, there’d also be European foreigners coming to
France to fill the gap, but so far the British, Germans, and
Italians are not coming in significant enough numbers.”
Le Bras fears France is suffering a brain drain. Galland is
“The fact that the French are participating more in a
general mobility trend in the skilled workforce, in Europe or
around the world, is a good thing,” said Galland.
“They bring new experience back when they return.”
The exodus is a new phenomenon for the French,
traditionally reluctant to learn foreign languages or cross
borders for work.
Even with the recent rise, data from the Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development show that France still
ranks low — 22nd out of 27 countries — in terms of the
proportion of its native-born population that works abroad.
However, international job offers via independent
recruitment sites are on the rise, and even the state
bureaucracy is adapting.
The National Employment Agency, for example, has been
developing its foreign placement wing and now coordinates with
the European Commission to facilitate work-abroad programs.
In 2005, the body saw a 14 percent increase in the number
of international job offers it handled compared with the
previous year, and a rise of 6 percent to 5,359 successful
placements. This summer, it plans to host international job
fairs across France and information meetings on German,
English, and French-speaking employment markets.
Laure Detalle Moreau, communications director for the
ANPE’s foreign placements effort, said most successful
arrangements involved young people who had completed higher
She said applicants often accepted more junior positions
than those for which they were theoretically qualified in
“The expat thing has been in fashion for a few years now,
and people do it for the experience it brings,” she said.
For European Union passport holders, work in most EU
countries is unhindered by bureaucracy. In the United States
however, employers must sponsor foreign workers’ permits.
After almost three years in New York, Caille says he is
thinking about returning to France.
“Coming here was great for a jump-start,” he said, “but
after you cut your teeth it’s better to head back because visa
issues complicate things over the long run.”
“And once you’ve gotten started, France is a much kinder