Thursday, 23 November 2017

Nice work if you can get it

I once had a friend, who, sadly, died only a year after retirement. He was a superb craftsman and ran a small boat building and repairing business in Brittany. He was able to shape wood or fibreglass so that every part looked perfect - a true professional. He told me more than once that he was able to assess every young recruit within a few days of them starting work and tell whether they were gifted for manual work or not. With those who passed muster he was generous with his time and advice, but he was also quick to discourage those he felt would never find fulfilment in manual work. Most of the youngsters he encouraged stayed on in the business and one even went on to set up a similar company in another part of Brittany. Without realising it, they had been given an excellent start to their career by benefiting from the shrewd assessment and generous mentoring of an experienced professional at just the right time.

All this comes back into memory as I listen to the endless debates about President Macron’s promised and much needed reform of France’s byzantine system of vocational training, apprenticeships and unemployment insurance. It has long been a mantra of politicians that France needs to reform its vocational training system to bring down high employment, especially youth unemployment, by giving young people the skills they need to get a job or retrain those whose job has been lost. It sounds simple but, like most things in an advanced industrial economy, and particularly in France, it isn’t.

Take the school system to start with. Not so many years go, kids who did not do well in school were weeded out early and ended up in unskilled jobs on a farm, in a factory or in a shop. Soon after I first came to France, over 40 years ago, I did a stint of teaching at a “collège” (for kids up to the age of about 16) in a small provincial town. At the end of their compulsory schooling, pupils, especially girls, who were not considered academic were told, pretty dismissively after the final class assessment, that they would do better to leave school and look for a job. At the time, jobs were more easily found – even for the unqualified. Today most jobs require minimum levels of competence to work with modern technological tools. Recognising this, the monolithic Education Nationale has, over the years, introduced alternative paths to the baccalauréat, (high school leaving exam) for those whose academic performance has not been stellar. Pupils who are not deemed academic enough to do a general baccalauréat (in maths and science, literature or social studies) are directed towards these alternative, vocationally oriented, courses, supposed to equip them with the skills required for the jobs market or some form of higher education. And yet it is still the case, despite the huge changes that have taken place in society and the economy that those who are not considered “academic” at school still carry a stigma of failure as they take up these alternative baccalauréats, widely considered as  second best solutions for the ungifted. The system does ensure that 80% of any given age group pass some form of baccalauréat. However, many consider that vocational subjects suffer from teaching that is overly academic, an inadequate level of out-dated resources, little regard for employability and are therefore ill matched to the skills required for the labour market. But then schools and those who run them have always defended the view that their primary task is to educate pupils to be well-rounded citizens, and not be too distracted from this noble mission by designing and delivering training for commerce or industry.

In contrast to all this, it should not be forgotten that France boasts a number of very selective but world-class higher institutes of learning and training. For those who do well in high school, elite engineering and business academies beckon, opening up prospects of responsible and highly paid jobs all over the world. Graduates from the famous Polytechnique and the elite engineering schools (Ecole des Mines and Ecole de Ponts et Chaussées) for instance, or top business schools, are among the best and the brightest anywhere. But the impact on society, as a famous French journalist, Pierre Viansson-Ponté, wrote many years ago, is that “France chooses its future elites on the basis of their excellence in mathematics”. It was only a slight exaggeration at the time and not much has changed since.

In other words, the French education and training system works well, even very well, for the select few who are able to meet such exacting requirements. It works a lot less well for many others with different talents that are not always identified and nurtured at school. If high school students pass any baccalauréat, they can claim, without further ado, a place at a state-run university charging no tuition fees, regardless of their school record or job prospects. They roundly reject any attempt at  “selection “, because university is seen as the default choice for further training, even though only about 50% succeed in their first undergraduate year.

This state of affairs is exactly what Macron’s bold attempt at reform is supposed to remedy: change attitudes towards apprenticeships and vocational training; identify areas that require skills and ensure that relevant training courses are on offer to provide them; identify pupils who are likely to benefit from such opportunities, even if they have a patchy school record; retrain employees who need to upgrade their skills or learn new ones, paid for in many cases by their “individual training account”, a welcome innovation introduced by a previous government three years ago.

And it is not as if the money to fund such an effort is not there, not to speak of the savings that could be made if more of those who are entitled to claim a place at university decided to opt for more promising avenues towards employment.  All companies are required by law to pay contributions towards training and there are plenty of central and local government bodies that are supposed to dispense and oversee it. The trouble is that the whole system has become mired in bureaucracy, content, like most bureaucracies, to observe the letter of the law rather than its spirit. Money is directed towards training by numerous committees made up of employers, trade unions and civil servants. Vocational training for adults is doled out by over 65 000 registered providers. There is precious little individual counselling and practically no evaluation of what works and what doesn’t. The input of individual businesses, when it is requested, tends to be cancelled out by the dead hand of the Education Nationale. The unqualified and long-term unemployed vegetate on the sidelines.

President Macron’s purported reforms, now being discussed with all the parties involved, sound promising, but a lot will depend on how they are presented and if the inevitable resistances can be overcome. And there will be plenty of resistance on the part of the many and various bodies that hold the power and the purse strings in the current system. Three years ago for instance, as part of a regional reform programme, regional authorities were given, on paper, the responsibility for vocational training in order to bring it closer to local employment requirements. Since then, bureaucratic confusion and infighting has ensued and above all, the Education Nationale is quietly resisting any attempt to take training for the young out of its remit. While there is a lot to be said for the idea of giving all children a well-rounded education and preparing them for citizenship, there is surely the need, in a country with one of the highest unemployment rates in the EU, for a new balance to be struck, so that attractive and promising vocational training opportunities can be brought to those whose talents are suited to them, young and less young. After all, a fulfilling job also makes for happier employees, more stable families and a better society in general.

Whatever new arrangements are eventually put in place, they will of course be light years away from the simple but effective method instinctively applied by my deceased friend in Brittany. But there are nevertheless small, everyday signs of hope that the deep culture may be changing. The other day, in the garage to which I had taken my car for servicing, I spotted a youngster working on a car engine. “Got an apprentice?” I asked the owner. “Yes”, he said, “he’s on a vocational training course, one week here, one week in school, doing well, likes the job. Nice to see a youngster like that getting stuck in.”

France certainly needs a lot more of them.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Glyphosate mon amour !

Anyone who travels by train or car from Paris towards the Loire valley or Brittany will pass though the region of the Beauce, thousands and thousands of acres of flat, arable land that stretches for miles and could be described as France’s breadbasket. The farmers of wheat and other cereals who are lucky enough to have land in this area are among the wealthiest of their profession. A lot of their harvest is exported and contributes positively to France’s trade and current account balances.  These are definitely not the French farmers who sometimes use their tractors to disrupt traffic on major roads or dump tons of potatoes or manure in front of government buildings. One of the reasons for their success is the high yields enabled by the spraying of powerful herbicides and pesticides on their crops. The same is true for sugar beet farmers and, to a lesser extent, many others.

It has been known for some time that residues of these chemicals can be found in foodstuffs and urine samples. Environmental activists have long denounced their widespread use and beekeepers consider neonicotinoid pesticides in particular responsible for abnormally high bee mortality in recent years. Public debate has now crystallised around glyphosate, the chemical compound used in Monsanto’s famous herbicide, Roundup. As glyphosate’s licence for use throughout the European Union is due for renewal by December 15 of this year, the debate has become increasingly heated and no fewer than eight expert and ministerial meetings in Brussels have been unable to attain the necessary majority for renewal. The European Commission’s initial proposal was to renew the licence for ten years, reduced to five after an outcry from the European Parliament. France, through its Minister for Ecological Transition (and telenvironmentalist in a previous life) Nicolas Hulot, has refused to concede more than three years and is thought to favour the gradual phasing out of the product altogether rather than renewing the licence and facing the same battle three years hence.

Somewhat concealed under the manoeuvrings of the Commission, clearly influenced by Monsanto’s lobbying, the European Parliament which has banned the company’s representatives from entering its premises and environmentalists of all persuasions, the underlying issue is the future shape of the European Union’s model of agriculture. And as France is one of the EU’s largest countries and a major producer and exporter of agricultural produce, its stance will have a big impact. An additional twist to the plot is that the German chemical concern, Bayer, launched a takeover bid for Monsanto in September 2016, so the position of Germany, still embroiled in coalition negotiations to form the next government, is likely to tip the balance one way or the other.  

Like most people, I have no way of knowing what claims and counterclaims about glyphosate are accurate. A specialist body of the World Health Organisation has concluded from its studies that it is carcinogenic for humans. Other studies claim that it is not, although doubts have been cast on their design and conclusions. Common sense however would I think conclude that spraying large quantities of strong chemicals on crops of all kinds, even if they are not a direct cause of cancer, is not exactly conducive to good health. On holiday in Alsace a few years ago, I remember walking though some vineyards, seeing a large tank of liquid that was undoubtedly being sprayed on the vines and coming away with my eyes stinging so badly, that I had to go straight to the nearest pharmacy and ask for something to relieve the pain. The pharmacist made no comment on the reasons I gave for seeking his help, but with the help of an over-the-counter ocular formula my eyes were back to normal by the end of the evening. I couldn’t help wondering though whether the chemical sprayed on the vines, whatever it was, would not leave a residue in the grapes and the wine that would be made from them. Not too many months later, my ex-wife’s basset hound, a middle-aged dog normally in good health, died in obvious pain a few days after lapping from what looked like a puddle of rainwater at the edge of a cultivated field. The vet was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to say what he had died of, but my suspicion is that he had slurped up some nasty and poisonous chemical, washed off the crops by rain.

All in all, I can’t help feeling that environmental activists should be taken seriously when they call for a complete overhaul of France’s agricultural model. There are signs that farmers are starting to listen, under pressure mainly from consumers who are increasingly keen to buy organic produce (See: “Food glorious food”- September 18th).  In one of those schizophrenic episodes to which the EU authorities are prone, European subsidies are earmarked for farmers who convert to organic farming methods although, for the time being, reports suggest that they are insufficient in France and being paid out very slowly by the French government.  Personally I look forward to being able to eat bread and drink wine that is certified free of chemical residues – and too bad for wine growers in Alsace or wheat farmers in the Beauce. They are likely to protest loudly, lobby hard and do their best to procrastinate but I’m confident they won’t go out of business!

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Pain and the night

There is a nasty undercurrent of frustration and violence in French society today. Everyday incidents of violence against people and property are often reported sparingly, if at all. It is only when some major outrage occurs that it captures the public imagination and media attention before sinking back into convenient oblivion.

The most recent to hit the media headlines was the trial that has just ended of a lone, home-grown terrorist, Mohamed Merah, who killed three French soldiers, all Muslims, and three Jewish children as well as the father of two of them, at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012. In fact it was not his trial at all, as he was shot dead by the police just days after his crime, but that of his family, particularly his elder brother, as well as a childhood friend. Both stood accused of complicity. They were defended by a leading Parisian lawyer and, given the cold-blooded nature of the killings and the police siege that ended the terrorist’s life, the media coverage was constant and comprehensive. The professional judges hearing the case concluded that the two defendants were not guilty of complicity in terrorist acts, for which they would have faced life imprisonment but only complicity in planning terrorist acts, for which the elder brother was sentenced to 20 years in prison and the friend, who provided the weapon of the crime, 14 years. The prosecution has appealed against the sentence on the grounds that it didn’t go far enough and the victims’ families were clearly distressed about what they considered to be the leniency of the verdict.

Over and above this brief outline of the case, what was striking throughout the trial was the evident hostility, if not downright hatred, of France and everything French on the part of the terrorist’s family. The verdict of complicity was clearly based on the fact that the young man himself, who had a record of petty crime but nothing worse at the time he went on his killing spree, had been radicalised and considered himself on a mission to kill infidels and Jews. Most of that radicalisation appears to have originated from within his family.

Of course it is only a very small minority of second and third generation youngsters from French Muslim families who are radicalised in this way, but the story of Mohamed Merah is surely not isolated either. Another report on the radio, that I heard only once, recalled that acts of anti-semitism have increased substantially in France in recent years. One out of every four attacks on people, it was reported, is carried out against Jews. Feeling increasingly threatened in their home country, more than 8,000 French Jews chose to emigrate to Israel last year, by far the highest number from any European country.

Even Halloween night, which has so far usually been synonymous with a good-natured outing for young kids in disguise, knocking on neighbours’ doors and calling out “trick or treat”, took on a more sinister turn this year, when it was reported, again very fleetingly, that dozens of cars had been torched in towns and cities all over France, and not just in blighted suburbs around Paris, Lyon and Marseille. This phenomenon has previously been a feature of New Year’s Eve only. Now it seems to have spread to Halloween.

These seemingly unconnected reports within two days would not have focused my attention so sharply had I not woken up on the morning of November 1st to find that a plastic chair had been taken from the next door garden and thrown over our sea wall, and that a gate at the end of a path that runs into the village had been broken from its hinges and was missing. Nothing more than misguided youthful spirits fuelled by a little too much alcohol, one might argue. I must admit that I’m not so sure. Without overstraining the link between terrorism, the gratuitous torching of cars and an attempt to destroy property in a quiet seaside village, is it not the case that natural youthful spirits and adolescent spleen, if not reined in and sanctioned by family or community or the authorities when it goes too far, can lead on to petty crime and sometimes worse? Add in the ingredients of the dreary life on council estates, failure at school and dim employment prospects and the mixture can become highly combustible, receptive to malevolent influences.

In France, a country that prides itself on striving to build an inclusive society, there are clearly too many young people, particularly from immigrant communities, who feel excluded and alienated. Turning these sentiments around will be a long and difficult task but it is surely better to start by facing them head on rather than sweeping them under the carpet.

The French popular singer, Renaud, best known for catchy tunes and sentimental love songs, tinged with mild social criticism, wrote and performed a song called “Deuxième Génération” (Second Generation) as long ago as 1986. It is certainly not one of his best-known songs and has never been given much airtime. Maybe it is simply too close to the bone for those who seek to influence our tastes and opinions. Judge for yourself by listening, particularly to the refrain, if you understand French. If not, you will have to make do with my own, inadequate, translation.

My name’s Sliman and I’m fifteen
I live with my folks in a run down flat
I’m already a graduate of crime
I’m no slouch, I’ve had more than one spat
But I’m the strongest in my gang,

A snakehead on my arm proves that.

(Refrain) I’ve nothing to gain, nothing to lose,

Not even life,
Only death lights up my dreary days,
I like only things that are shredded with a knife,
But what I like most is what gives you fright -
- Pain and the night.

And with the benefit of hindsight, what could be more prophetic than the last verse, in which Sliman identifies with fellow-sufferers in a distant land and wishes he could march off to fight with them?

To feel I belong somewhere
To a people and a land
I wrap around my hair
A keffieh in grey, white and black
And imagine us as brothers,
Stabbed together in the back.