Is Exit The Best Hope For France’s Young?

by Veronique de Rugy

Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a piece by Felix Marquardt, the founder of Atlantic Dinners and the chief executive of a public-relations company in France, wherein he argues that the best hope for France’s youth is to leave the country. The piece is the second he writes on the issue. Interestingly, he wrote the first one with the journalist Mouloud Achour and the rapper Mokless in the leftwing paper Libération. The case they made was that France had become “a decrepit, overcentralized gerontocracy and that French youths should pack their bags and go find better opportunities elsewhere in the world.”  

Needless to say, their piece wasn’t particularly well-received, even if some unexpected allies expressed their support.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, the patriarch of the French far right, reacted as one would expect: “Mouloud is encouraging French youths to leave so his cousins can come in their place.” (Mr. Achour is of North African origin.)

But beyond Mr. Le Pen, whose extremist National Front party is now run by his daughter, Marine, the split didn’t break down along ideological lines. The former Trotskyite leader Olivier Besancenot and the current head of the right-wing party Union for a Popular Movement, Jean-François Copé, publicly voiced support for our argument. Nor was the division generational.

It was a divide between those who have found their place in the system and believe fervently in defending the status quo, and those who are aware that a country that has tolerated a youth unemployment rate of 25 percent for nearly 30 years isn’t a place where the rising generations can expect to rise to much of anything. 

He is absolutely right that France is effectively controlled by a small number of people who are well over 60. As such, we shouldn’t be surprised that they are unwilling to reform government healthcare and retirement programs. 

The reason for the second piece, it seems, is that after nine months of silence François Hollande finally had to comment on the issue, after he listened to the story of a recent graduate of the Institut d’Études Politiques (known as Sciences Po)—one of the top schools in the country—who is now moving to Australia to seek opportunities she couldn’t find in France. Asked what he would say to convince this student to stay, Hollande gave a rather lame answer. Marquardt writes:

“I’d tell this young person that France is your country. This country loves you,” he replied, as if reiterating the dated conviction that France has more to offer would be enough to make it come true.

He repeated a refrain from his campaign over a year ago, claiming that he would make youth and employment top priorities. “My duty is to tell this young woman, it’s here in France that you must succeed.” But duty has nothing to do with creating opportunity and innovation.

Never underestimate the power of French denial. So far Hollande has refused to engage in fundamental structural reforms, he has reversed the small retirement reforms implemented under Sarkozy, and he has continued growing government spending and raised taxes massively. As a result, the country’s debt has reached 91.7 percent of GDP, unemployment is at its highest in years, and things are likely to deteriorate further.

And yet, as Marquardt explains, things will have to change:

Meanwhile, a major paradigm shift is occurring, whereby white men from Western Europe and North America are no longer calling all the shots. In many ways, what used to be seen as the periphery is swiftly becoming the center, as the countries we still clumsily call “emerging” — China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia and others — are doing much more than that.

Young French people need to go abroad, to work, to travel, to see how things can work differently in cultures and countries that don’t play by the same old rules — and then come back to France, and reinject some of the energy and enthusiasm they’ve absorbed to help reconcile the broader population with the global reality that France has shunned for far too long.

Though it may be anathema to French pride that anyone would want to leave (and that evidently Ms. Merkel, France’s No. 1 partner and rival, agrees), young people voting with their feet and coming back with a new worldview could be the best thing to happen to France in 30 years.

It might also prove to be a salutary jolt for the country’s leaders. Whether progressive or conservative, French politicians can’t go on taking their youth for granted. If they do, the ranks of the Le Pens’ extremist party will continue to swell, as will the number of talented young people who decide to leave — this time for good.

I believe in the benefits of exiting one’s country of origin in hope of finding a better life and a new home. I left France 14 years ago for that reason and I have never regretted my decision, even during the toughest moments. But the truth is that my choice was easier to make back then than it may be today. There was such a difference in living standards between France and the U.S. that it really seemed to me like a no-brainer. I do think that the U.S. still is likely to offer many more opportunities than France, but sadly the differences in economic opportunity aren’t as striking as they were back then.  Yet, if I were a young French person today I would still make the trip and, like millions before me, come to the U.S. And of course, there are other destinations which may look riskier and less obvious but could yield large rewards.

Besides, a mass exodus of young people from France may be just the signal that the old guard needs that things have to change.




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