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April 24, 2007

Meet one of London's largest communities of economic migrants - young French graduates

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Young French graduates are one of the largest groups of economic migrants to come to the UK. Harry Phibbs explains why.

I write just after the first round of the Presidential elections as Nicolas Sarkozy heads off in the lead for the final run off against Segolene Royal. From a British perspective we have enjoyed a bit part in these elections. French youth with talent, enterprise and ambition has been migrating to London in such numbers that there exodus has become an issue in the French Presidential elections. Sarkozy states:

London has become the seventh largest French city. It ceaselessly sucks in thousands of young French people - including my own daughter - who find it easier to succeed there than at home. How shameful is it that a young person wanting to get on is obliged to leave.
Apparently 300,000 French citizens, predominantly young, have come to live in London - run by Ken Livingstone and Tony Blair - to escape Socialism for the free market. Well, all things are relative I suppose.

Of course most French youths have not felt able to cope with the rain and warm beer we have to offer and have decided to stay in Paris. But even many of them yearn for liberation. JÚrome Leboz, a young Breton who came to Paris from Morbihan with his parents as a small child, told The Observer:

It's not that I dislike Paris or France, but it's just become more and more impossible to see any future here if you're French.
The Observer adds:
Leboz is 24 and has a good job as a junior manager at a factory in the suburb of Levallois. But his salary barely covers his rent (in a low-grade apartment in the suburbs) and his bank refuses to give him any form of loan, let alone a mortgage, until he can name the day that he will have enough capital accrued to pay it off.
Leboz states:
It's a trap. Everybody in France wants security - in their job and house - but if you are young you are denied access to owning your destiny for so many reasons. I work hard but it can seem pointless. I have enough money for a few drinks and maybe a club at the weekend, but so what? It's not a future.
In Britain we are familiar with the arguments between those who believe in a flexible labour market where the state gets out of the way and those who feel it is too harsh and there needs to be strong regulation. The French system at the moment seems to be a compromise rigged against the young. Employers are free to sack the young - but heavily penalised for sacking the old.

The peculiar set up they have there is called Taxe Delalande - a punitive levy on any business that sacks anybody over the age of 45. So if times are hard for a business in France and it needs to cut back its workforce instead of deciding to keep the most hard working and capable it decides to keep the old. There could scarcely be a more divisive formula to inculcate resentment across the generations.

French youth with pride in their country might want to stay. But those with pride in their own potential are driven abroad. It is not just that the regime is restrictive - it is unfairly restrictive with this extraordinary state requirement for age discrimination. Since the tax was introduced in 1987 predictably youth unemployment has risen while the ageing workforce become complacent and cocooned on state protection.

A further indication of the waste of human resources is the jobless rate among graduates. According to a survey conducted by the Centre for Research on Education, Training and Employment (Cereq), of 25,000 young people who left education in 2001, 11 per cent of graduates were unemployed in 2007.

None of this means that Sarkozy is automatically hoovering up the votes of the young. He has the problem familiar to British Conservatives. Logically the young have the most to gain from freedom and since it is the Conservatives who believe in freedom the young should be natural Conservatives. But on the other hand Conservatives are associated with the establishment. Often the concepts of reducing the amount of law but obeying those laws left in place are considered confusing positions to hold.

Those who work in groovy youthful industries such as website designers, DJs, hip-hop record label owners and young film-makers have been agonising over whether to vote for their economic interests or vote for Sarkozy - who with his grumpy complaints about young people rioting (he called them "scum") , is not very cool.

Not that young French voters looking for a principled, idealistic choice are likely to be terribly happy with either of those still on offer. Segolene Royal seeks to both trade on her femininity (despite being hard as nails) and complain about sexism. Now she scrabbles about trying to pick up those who voted for far Left candidates in the first round (a significant number at nearly 10%) while also trying to pick up Francois Bayrou's centrist voters. For Sarkozy the idea that he will really liberalise the economy on the scale that Margaret Thatcher achieved in Britain seems hopelessly optimistic. Sarkozy's enthusiasm for the European Union probably gives a better guide to how robust he will be in tackling regulation. But he remains France's only hope.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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