Blame it on the churros. Or the pumping early 90’s American dance beats. Or the sky high CGT blimps. Whatever the reason, I found myself unexpectedly caught up in France’s national strike on Thursday, January 29. As I stuffed my face with sugary fried dough, I realized the irony of how I had spent the entire day frantically searching for a job in Paris while the rest of France played hooky from work.
The Communists, the Socialists, the teachers, the retirees, the unemployed – even those who weren’t sure why they were there (clearly marked by their “grève générale” stickers) had conglomerated at Metro Bastille to protest teacher cuts, reduced purchasing power, fewer unemployment benefits, less medical coverage and general discontent with French life.
As an American, I couldn’t understand it. Much of France’s je ne sais quoi appeal involves not just great coffee, pastries and fashion, but tangible benefits: a 35-hour work week, paid medical and dental insurance, 25 days paid vacation, and 16 weeks maternity leave with the option of taking three years off (unpaid) from work while retaining total job security.
And what if you should lose your job in this feeble economy? Getting laid off in France means receiving up to 75% of your salary for months, even years, (often receiving more than you would gaining the minimum wage), free job training and advice, and the ability to keep your health insurance. Being a chomeur is so great, in fact, that many young people purposely quit their jobs, take up the benefits and go traveling for a few months.
So as President Sarkozy fights to the death to keep jobs for French citizens, many of those same citizens are abusing the unemployment system in order to avoid working altogether. And that laissez-faire attitude is taking its toll. While France is still one of Europe’s economic darlings (ranked fifth in the world according to its nominal GDP) it has one of the lowest percentages of hours worked compared to other developed countries. And as of October 2008, France had 4 million people on chomage and an 8% unemployment rate – one of the highest in Europe.
Yet here I sat, work permit in hand, and I could not get a job. Call it that old French mistrust of immigration where “stranger equals danger,” but it seemed to most employers that my situation was just too “complicated.”
While France has advanced in many ways over the years, its immigration policies have not: in order for Americans to work here, we need a permit from the government. But we cannot get the permit without getting the job first. And voilà, instant conundrum. Apart from marrying a French citizen, becoming a lifelong student or going through the painstaking process of starting your own business, Americans are left in a catch-22 that even MacGyver wouldn’t be able to work himself out of.
Luckily, Americans seem to be born with eternal optimism and an inner drive to work hard that is somewhat lost on the European “work to live, not live to work” mentality. Not that reducing our self-worth to a job timetable is necessarily a positive thing, but it certainly prepares us for a good fight.
So if your American dream involves a healthy serving of croissants and blue cheese, prepare for a Hercules-sized battle against those notorious French bureaucratic sticks and spears – but don’t throw down your shield just yet. If Americans can elect a black president only 50 years after employing racially separated drinking fountains and bus seats, we can surely figure out how to do a simple thing like working in France, right?
This article was originally published in the April 2009 edition of Brit’mag.