20 May 2011

Chômage Today - The Reality of Unemployment in France

This week GFiMP steers into previously uncharted territory with the first in a multi-part series that takes a personal look at the somewhat sensitive issue of unemployment in France.

I've waited nearly five months before taking this step. Not out of any overriding sense of guilt or shame or embarrassment. I'm not doing it to sensationalize or 'sell copies'...or even find a job. Although pragmatic as I am, if an offer does come of it, why not?

What's ironic is that I normally avoid reading — and writing — the story-of-my-life type of blog or article. Except in rare cases, I fail to see — or appreciate — the relevance.

But the fact of unemployment can't just be swept away and forgotten. It affects nearly 2.6 million people in France directly (9.6% of the working population at the beginning of 2011), not to mention dependent spouses and other family members.

So I finally decided, what the heck, I'll reveal a little of my own story; maybe it will help defuse some of the social stigma unemployment stirs up. Maybe it will simply inform people living elsewhere, or who've never gone through it before, what chômage in France can be like. From one person's personal perspective.

This is not your typical 'Got France in My Pants' post. But it is a very real one.

Enough explaining — let's get to it...

mid-December 2010
My last day of work coincides with the Christmas holiday. No time to make any plans, not even a good-bye party or drink with colleagues in the pub around the corner. Head down, I plow on through, determined to finish my tasks before leaving. 10 years I've worked here, and now I'm scraping for time to complete a simple project. But I do, enough, at least, for the next person to pick up where I've left off. I go into the holidays feeling a bit empty inside. I remember what it was like to walk away after an intense week of exams during college and feeling "now what?".

During the process of being laid-off, my employer presented me with several options. It was an important decision, not one to be taken lightly, because my choice would greatly impact my immediate future.

The first was called CRP for short. Another bureaucratic acronym, this one meaning la Convention de Reclassement Personnalisé. In other words, your personalized reemployment program. Sounded interesting from the get-go.

If I agreed to it, the termination of my contract would be fast-tracked, and I'd walk away 21 days later, unemployed.

Accepting the CRP is a bit like signing up for a personal gym trainer. Need to get back in shape? Here's Brutus. He's all yours...for the next 12 months.

Under the Brutus regime, I would have the status of "professional trainee" and benefit from regularly supervised workouts (meetings) as well as a battery of tests, training sessions and various on-line and print resources. Everything to get me back to work as soon as possible.

Perhaps the most attractive element of the CRP — and the deciding factor for those who eventually choose it — is the money. Quite understandably so.  For a maximum period of 12 months, the trainee receives roughly 80% of their gross salary of the last year; enough time and money, one would think, to find their way back into the workforce, even if it means re-inventing a new job for oneself.

If that last idea conjures up images of 12 lazy months of trolling beaches with paper umbrellas in tall drinks, taking languorous afternoon naps or watching mid-day television, remember that Brutus is on your back, every week, working with you to formulate a plan, tighten up your CV, write cover letters, practice interview techniques, approve further training if necessary. And if one day Brutus comes to you and says he's got an offer that matches your professional objective and skills base, you are committed to following up with it.

That's all part of being a CRPer. Nearly one year's salary. Up to 12 months of personalized professional coaching (less, of course, if you find your way back to work sooner), and resources at one's disposal. The other options were much less interesting: less than half one's salary, no personal trainer, a full two month's notice, etc.

I won't say it was a done deal immediately. But it didn't take me long to make my choice. After a few days of careful deliberation, I signed on the dotted line and began counting 21 days to a whole new life experience.

Early January 2011
I pop into the office on the 4th to return the company laptop and mobile phone and to pick up my going away check. I kiss the admin girls on the cheek. I mean, this is France after all. Shake hands with a few of the managers. Hear a few rounds of "good luck" and "thanks for everything". Someone hands me the latest issue of the company newsletter and points to my name in the sidebar in teeny print: there's a recipe of mine for Tibetan soup (not really mine, but one I "borrowed" from a café blackboard) and a note mentioning I'm the author of a blog (Got France in My Pants) and that everyone should go check it out. I smile, agree wholeheartedly, and am out the door for the very last time.

Over the last several years I've tried to image exactly what this moment would be like: the feelings of accomplishment, the rousing farewell party, the teary-eyed good-byes. Because in every one of those daytime reveries from the past I was walking directly into another job with grand (grandiose?) responsibilities and a salary to match. But that's not exactly how it goes here. Though I don't succumb to it, I think I understand how someone could feel overwhelming shame or guilt or humiliation standing at such a crossroads. Fortunately I've got ideas of what I want to pursue now that I've got the time and resources for it. Still, walking out that door is like staring into the void with no promise of anything beyond 12-month's salary and an unsettling vision of some abnormal, goal-driven employment consultant whose only ambition is to get me back to work as fast as humanly possible.

Next up: Meeting the Employment Office

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