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The French people

The French Economy, The Family, The French at work
The unemployment issue

The French Economy

Since the 1950s, first economic growth and then social and technological progress have brought about profound changes in France and ushered in the consumer and leisure era. 
Despite the problems associated with the economic crisis, the French have one of the highest standards of living in the world, with their country among the best placed in the United Nations reports.  For example, the UN human development index (HDI) based on economic, social and cultural criteria put France second only to Canada in 1997.  However, economic and social development has led to some standardisation of lifestyles and consumer spending, particularly reducing differences between urban and town dwellers.  Nevertheless, regional identities remain strong and are an important element in the geographical and cultural mosaic of France, which mirrors the diversity of Europe itself and makes France the world’s most popular tourist destination.

Between 1955 and 1995, the average purchasing power of the French quadrupled.  Despite the economic crisis, it has gone on rising, albeit more slowly, with household incomes rising by 50% between 1975 and 1995 (up by an average 2% per year).  French incomes grew more during those forty years than since the beginning of the industrial revolution which sparked off the country’s economic growth.  Over the same period, welfare cover was extended to the whole of the population and today anyone with no resources is now entitled to a basic social security benefit, which may take the form of the RMI (minimum integration income), which is a type of income support, of a special « solidarity » allowance paid to the long-term unemployed who have exhausted their entitlement to unemployment benefit, or an attendance allowance for the dependent elderly.  All in all, taking the period as a whole, social inequalities have been reduced and France has seen a narrowing of the wage/salary range and disparities in inherited wealth, even though the past two decades of economic crisis have tended once again to widen the gulf between the richest and poorest sectors of society: the poorest 10% of the French receive 2.3% of national income, whilst the richest 10% receive 27%.  However, despite this, French society remains one of the least unequal.
In the case of both wage-earning and non wage-earning households (a household averages 2.5 persons), the mean monthly income is between 15,000 francs ($2,500) and 16,000 francs ($2,660) before tax.  Taken as a whole, wages/salaries account for half the total income and welfare benefits a third, with the rest coming from self-employment and income from investments and property.  The wage/salary range has narrowed over the past thirty years and in 1996 those in the highest income bracket were paid about three times more than those in the lowest: the average income for managerial and professional staff, the best-paid category, was 20,760 francs per month ($3,460), while unskilled workers, the lowest-paid category, received an average of 7,020 francs per month ($1,170).  In 1997, average net income, excluding bonuses, of full-time employees was 10,685 francs per month ($1,780) - the gross average was 13,550 francs.  In 1950, France was the first country in Europe to introduce a minimum wage for all types of employment.  In 1998, 1.5 million workers (11.2% of employees) were earning the SMIC (salaire minimum interprofessionnel de croissance), then 6,797 francs ($1,133) gross a month. The bulk of those on the SMIC are young people, both women and men, with no qualifications, working for small or medium-sized companies.  In 1997, the purchasing power of disposable income increased by 2.5%, the largest rise for seven years.  However, 4.5 million people -a sixth of the working population- were not in paid employment and were living on benefit:  1.8 million of them on unemployment benefit (just over 1.3 million or so in 1999) and 2.7 million on social security.
The standard of living of the French varies not only with their income but also according to what they own.  Over half of average household wealth takes the form of real estate. The remainder is made up of financial assets and the proportion of this constituted by insurance products and shares and bonds has grown fivefold over the past twenty years.  Gross average household wealth now exceeds a million francs, but varies considerably according to social category, on a scale of 1 to 8: from slightly under 500,000 francs for the families of wage and salary earners to almost four million for those of professionals.

The Family: New Values

The family and the institution of marriage have been through complex changes as society has become more diverse and the rise in living standards has radically altered living conditions.  The drift from the land and the urban development which peaked in the 1970s have been key factors in the weakening of traditional family ties and structures, a process accentuated by the extension to rural communities of urban lifestyles and the increasing number of women in employment.  This fragmentation of the traditional family unit is reflected by a marked drop in the number of elderly people living with the younger generation and a rise in the incidence of divorce.  Concurrently, the hierarchy within the family has to some extent been blurred with authority no longer so dependent on age or order of birth.  These changes have been accompanied by a fall in the number of marriages and a rise in the divorce rate.  Fewer people are getting married and those who do are doing so later and later - the average age at which people get married for the first time is 27 for women and 29 for men - and the number of people staying single is increasing: 7% of those born in 1940, but, it is estimated, probably over 30% of those born in 1970.  Practically one marriage in two ends in divorce (about 285,000 marriages are celebrated and over 130,000 divorces pronounced every year);  thirty years ago, the ratio was one to ten, with approximately 40,000 divorces for 400,000 marriages.

Changing Laws for Changing Lifestyles

In reality, the old models are evolving, rather than dying out.  The family unit and the couple are still very important in our society, but they have adapted to less rigid conceptions and practices, and the legal and social bases of these institutions have been modernized to meet couples’ changing needs. In the 1960s, approximately 400,000 couples were unmarried, whereas now there are two million and nearly four in ten births take place outside marriage. The introduction of the Civil Solidarity Pact (Pacte civil de solidarité - PACS) in October 1999 offers couples who do not want, or are unable to marry the possibility of living together under stable and more secure conditions. The PACS is a contract laying down not only the partners’ rights, but also their duties. It gives unmarried couples greater legal security and facilitates their life together.There are now large numbers of one-parent families and of families in which children live with one biological parent and one step-parent.  Over two million children live in one of these types of family.  The law is changing to encompass these new realities and new more flexible legislation on the family unit, marriage and divorce was under discussion in 1998.

Family Solidarity

The family nevertheless remains a major place of refuge in times of difficulty.  Young people are leaving home later and later as a result of the increasing length of their studies and subsequent difficulty in finding a job.  They now leave home, on average, at the age of 25, while in the sixties the majority did so around 20-21.  The existence of a close family able to provide support clearly mitigates the effects of unemployment and financial problems.  Inter-generational financial help is estimated at an average of 135 billion francs ($22.5 billion) per year, mainly to young people from their parents and grandparents, and often continues for some time, even when the recipients are well into adulthood.  The fact that many homeless people are known to have lost all contact with their relations clearly demonstrates that the lack of a close family hastens the downward spiral of social exclusion.

The French at Work

Thanks to technological progress and more streamlined production, people now work far less, but far more efficiently, than they did in the past.  The reduction in the time spent working is clear from the cuts in the statutory working week, which was set at 48 hours in 1919, 40 hours in 1936, 39 hours in 1982 and 35 hours in 1998 (to be fully implemented in 2000).  But other factors too have played a part in this change and these are clearer if working life is looked at as a whole: professional careers begin much later and end much earlier  and people no longer work either seven days a week or twelve months a year (workers have a legal right to five weeks’ paid holiday per year).  If all these factors are taken into account, the actual length of working life in France has been halved since 1870, while over the same period France’s GDP has risen by a factor of fourteen and hourly productivity by one of twenty.  However, conditions vary greatly from one type of work to another and, whilst salaried employees worked an average 1,630 hours per year in 1996, farmers, lorry-drivers and shop-keepers worked far more.

Moving Towards the 35-hour Working Week

The economic crisis, new ways of organising production and wider use of machinery and systems replacing jobs have changed the world of work.  The chronic unemployment which set in towards the end of the 1970s with the arrival of the first baby-boom generations on the employment market also played a part in altering people’s attitudes to work.  A number of developments are taking place in response to the new demands of the labour market.  There has been a sharp rise in the number of part-time workers, from 6% of salaried employees in the early seventies to 17% today.  Teleworking is enabling more people to work from home.  Care for the elderly, new social needs and increasing concern for the environment are also creating new jobs within the community and thus helping reduce unemployment.The shorter working week introduced in 1998 is clearly one of several possible solutions to France’s unemployment problem. The Act on the reduction of working time is an innovative measure, not only because of its content, but also because of the process of joint consultation and negotiation it sets in train. It has given rise to an unprecedented dialogue between management and labour in firms and sectors which has already led to 28,000 agreements. It has achieved its objective as regards employment: 192,000 jobs have been safeguarded or created since its implementation began in June 1998. Today, 3,365,000 employees work in firms which have concluded agreements on the reduction of the working week.
In France, working conditions are negotiated between employers and employees in each sector and set by state-backed collective-bargaining agreements.  In addition, since 1982, a series of laws and ordinances has strengthened the institutions representing employees and the role of trade unions and established a right to negotiation.  Trade union membership, which is still very high in countries like Germany and Scandinavia, is declining in France, despite long-established traditions.  It currently stands at approximately 10% (compared to 81% in Sweden) and most of the major trade unions (CGT, CFDT and FO being the most significant) have lost between a quarter and over half of their membership during the last twenty years.  Labour relations today are less confrontational than in the past.

The Unemployment issue

After experiencing, like other industrialised countries, twenty years of sharply rising unemployment, since 1997 France has seen a stabilization and then an upturn in employment. In June 1997, 2,900,000 people were unemployed, i.e. 12.7% of the labour force. In June-July 1999, the rate was 11.3% and by the end of March 2000 it had fallen to 10%. The objective of a single-figure rate (under 10%) was achieved in April 2000 when it dropped to 9.8%.
At the end of 1999, there were 2,583,000 registered job-seekers in France. At the end of 2000, there were 2,448,200, a reduction of 135,000 in three months. Job creation in 1999 was at an exceptionally high level: 374,000 jobs were created outside the public sector. Far from slowing down, the trend accelerated in the first half of 2000, with 142,300 jobs being created by private-sector firms.
These very good results are due to a series of factors. Firstly, the revival of growth and the renewed dynamism of the economy are encouraging firms to create jobs. But the situation has also been improved through employment policies and especially through two important measures: the emplois-jeunes programme and the reduction of working time.

The « Nouveaux services emplois-jeunes » is a programme designed to create new local services to address specific local community and social needs, employing young people.  By the end of March 2000, it had led to the creation of 242,000 jobs. These jobs are financed by the State for five years and the emphasis is on giving the youngsters vocational skills. The aim is that at the end of the five years, those jobs which are clearly addressing a continuous and long-term need will become permanent, with the funding provided locally, and where this is not the case, the young people involved will have by then acquired recognised skills of interest to other employers.

Cutting working time (RTT -Réduction du temps du travail)

Two successive Acts (13 June 1998 and 19 January 2000) have provided the legal framework for reducing the legal working week from 39 to 35 hours. Businesses benefit from very substantial reductions in employer social security contributions if the move to the shorter working week is made through an agreement negotiated with the workforce. As a result of RTT agreements signed since June 1998, 192,000 jobs (March 2000 figures) have either been safeguarded or created. Analysis of recruitment which has already taken place following RTT agreements shows that almost a fifth of the total number of people taken on have been under 25 and that in three quarters of the firms involved the new employees have been given permanent contracts.
The problem of unemployment is particularly worrying in the case of young people and the long-term unemployed. Besides the emplois-jeunes scheme, various programmes have been brought in to tackle it.

For young people

The main beneficiaries of the accelerating fall in unemployment have been the young: at the end of March 2000, France recorded a decline of 20% in youth unemployment over the previous year. However, more young men than young women are benefiting from this trend (for example in March 2000, the unemployment rate dropped by 4% for young men, but only 3.1% for young women). Furthermore, it is those with the fewest skills who have the greatest difficulty in finding jobs: in 1999, of all young people in the labour force (i.e. who have completed their schooling or higher education) only 10% of those with a degree or equivalent were unemployed compared to 35% of those with no formal qualifications. And for youngsters with learning or social problems it is still very hard to find a first job or another job following a period of unemployment.
It was precisely in order to help such young people that France brought in, within the framework of the anti-exclusion Act of 29 July 1998, the TRACE (Trajet d’accès à l’emploi - gateway/path to employment) programme. It offers those 16 to 25 year olds who are least well-equipped for the job market (those who have left school without any qualifications and/or have difficult social, personal or family situations) a personalised scheme involving 18 months of support designed to give them access to a permanent job. At the end of March 2000, about 50,000 youngsters were being helped in this way. The aim is to assist a total of 100,000 young people through the programme over the 1998-2000 period.

The French Economy, The Family, The French at work
The unemployment issue



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