Thursday, July 23, 2009

Big News: Paris Is Working

Or, more specifically, MCM is going to be working, in Paris!

This is the wonderful news that we've been waiting for. After a really lousy year, professionally-speaking, MCM and I both have landed great jobs. Yes, they are in different countries, but I think this is great: I really didn't want MCM to move with me and be bored, lonely, frustrated and underemployed.

Employment and unemployment in France: a few general thoughts

Our past year has been completely shaped by the particularities of French working (and non-working) life. To recap, we moved here last summer when MCM got a job in a French company; I followed and hoped to continue my research, writing and academic job search from Paris. As it turned out, MCM hated that job, and he didn't get much love back, either: he learned in October that he would be laid off right before Christmas. At the time, I had no job and no work permit. MCM has been actively looking for a job since October and so, except for a bit of consultancy work he was able to drum up, it took him 9 months to find a new job. He's a bilingual professional with 3 degrees.

As soon as I got the work permit I found a job teaching business English. I've really enjoyed this: my colleagues are mostly young women from a full range of Anglophone countries, my boss is a professional with a good sense of humour, and I enjoy going into different French offices and meeting new people. It's been an interesting glimpse into French working culture. I just wish it paid better.

1). On degrees, diplomas and formation: In the US, or even the UK, there are good universities and better universities, and they set their own admissions criteria, whether they are public or private. In France, all universities are public and are required by law to accept any students who pass the final high school exam, the Baccalaureate (le Bac). As a result, universities are not prestigious: only les grandes ecoles are (these include Sciences Po, for international relations, and HEC, a business school). University fees are nominal and students get social benefits, so some young people register as students without much intention of taking classes. It's a huge way of hiding unemployment.

2). What you do with your degree: Career paths are much more rigid in France than in the US. An American who majored in history and had a good GPA has virtually unlimited career options (provided she's done some internships or interesting jobs along the way). A French history graduate? Well, you take the concours (examination) to become a history teacher - this measures your subject knowledge, not your ability to teach. If you pass, you are guaranteed a job for life in your departement as soon as it becomes available; you'll make about $22,000 per year starting out. If you fail? You take it again. And again. And you maybe do some substitute or part-time teaching to make some money, or you enroll as a student again. You can't just work in a bank (need a finance degree), become a journalist (need a degree from journalism school), or work in a museum (need a museum degree).

I recently met a French girl who was waiting for her Bac results. She planned on doing a college degree in Writing Tourism Guides. She proudly told me there were very few programmes in France like it. When degrees are so specialised and you usually need a specific degree for a specific job, you can see why it's difficult to find a job here.

3). On unemployment: If you're going to lose your job, France is the place to be. There are two main kinds of contract in France: a CDD (contrat de duree determinee, or fixed-term contract, usually 6mo to 2 years) and CDI (contrat de duree indeterminee, or permanent contract). If you are hired as a CDD you can only have that CDD renewed once: after that your employer must terminate the contract or offer you a CDI. Many jobs start on a conditional CDD and are turned into CDIs after.

If your CDD is not renewed you are entitled to unemployment benefits, which I believe are calculated as 10% of the total amount you made over the length of your contract, paid over several months - it works out to monthly payments of about 60-70% of your previous salary. You get this regardless of how much money you have or made. You are also covered by the Securite Sociale, the state health care system, and you're entitled to certain reductions (like free museum entry).

This system is an enormous relief if you lose your job. Of course, if it were easier to find a job you wouldn't need this kind of safety net. I've also met some people who feel entitled to do exactly what they trained for - and would consider, for example, getting a job working at Starbucks to be humiliating and beneath them. Coming from the American work-is-healthy, work-gives-respect mentality, I had no problem teaching adults English when I'm trained to teach at a university; I was happy just to be working, and this both confused and impressed my students who were aware of it. Heck, when I was a waitress I worked with single moms pursuing nursing degrees part-time, and dishwashers who had trained as lawyers back in Brazil - if you want to talk about making sacrifices, start with them. But, given the specialisation of degrees and the availability of benefits, you can see why some French would be horrified that anyone with a PhD would be a waitress. After all, I didn't go to hotel school to train to do that...

4). On being cadre: My students often ask me how to translate 'cadre': you can't. It roughly translates as 'professional class' or 'white collar', but it's not a useful distinction to Americans. To a French person, it's a prestigious professional category that includes managers, doctors, lawyers, etc. I still haven't figured out the point of it, beyond pride and social status, but I get the impression it's easier to get a mortgage if you're cadre. As far as I know teachers and nurses are not cadre in France, though correct me if I'm wrong. (A nurse in France is more like being a nursing assistant in the US, in terms of the training and what you're allowed to do).

5). Salaries and benefits: Salaries are generally lower in France than in the US. Public health care comes standards and public charges are taking out of your paycheck at a rate of about 20%. These aren't income tax, though, which is additional but can be arranged to be paid per month based on an estimate of the previous year's income. (Still with me?) I don't have a clue what the tax brackets are in France: all I know is that MCM ran a simulation for us and we probably don't owe anything. Like in the US, there is room for error and it's a anxiety-producing topic.

6). The hiring process: appears, to me, often opaque and unprofessional. MCM also interviewed for a French job where he was offered the job over a boozy lunch, then the job was advertised, then he had an interview, then things dragged on, then the director decided to go on vacation the week he was supposed to make a decision... It was with a mix of bitterness and satisfaction that he withdrew from the search yesterday. The whole thing dragged on for months and was extremely frustrating for us - MCM was supposedly the frontrunner, but they were in no hurry to make a decision. Hey, you don't really 'need' a job if you can get unemployment benefits, so what's the big rush?

7). Productivity and vacation: French working life is not geared towards making the most money; it's more about having a decent work-life balance. My French students swear up and down that the French are the most productive workers in the world. In a game I played with some students where they had to rank bare necessities in life, one of my students put an annual holiday as her #1 choice, ahead of a winter coat and a refrigerator, and all of them put it in the top 8. French workers with CDIs get about 5-6 weeks of vacation per year and they are required to use them. (So they tell me). Nice work if you can get it!

Thoughts, comments and corrections are welcome.


  1. YAY! leave it to the Americans to finally realize Thomas's talent ;o)
    Also, I recently read an Economist article that indeed verified that the French are statistically the most productive workers. However, one must consider that in most cases this is b/c businesses are in fact understaffed. Case in point: local brasserie.

  2. Congratulations! Such a relief, I'm sure.

    I only worked for the Académie when I was in France, but noticed the overly categorized, mazelike restrictions on commercial employment. Just figuring out the degree system is dizzying; I don't know how an apathetic lycéen is supposed to navigate it.

    A few years ago, I found a brochure detailing post-secondary options, complete with acronym-filled flow charts. I showed it to a French colleague, thinking it might come in handy in her AP French class. This woman, who herself holds an advanced degree from a French school, blew it off with that typically Gallic wave of the hand. Turns out, even she doesn't understand the system--not only is it complicated, but constantly changing.

    So, I don't even try to understand it. One of the many reasons I'm happy to remain in my native culture!

  3. Hello. I just came across your blog. It's lively and interesting. For a Parisian (I am one), it's very instructive to see my city and compatriots through the eyes of an expat, especially because you did not come here by choice and francophilia, and you are not that fond of the City of Lights (welcome though, although you've been here for long time already).

    As for the present post, your last paragraph summarizes it well: in French culture indeed, "French working life is not geared towards making the most money; it's more about having a decent work-life balance." As I see it, you consider the 'French working way' as we French consider people in Southern Italia or Greece, for instance... and probably like a Japanese would see the US working way. Although I work about 50 hours a week myself, I am certainly prejudiced by my French culture when I see the French way as a good compromise between 'too much' and 'not enough'. Furthermore, what you wrote about French productivity at work is terribly true, and reported in many statistics (hah!). Cheers!


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