A viral video makes Macron look clueless about France’s unemployed youth

En marche!
En marche!
Image: Etienne Laurent / Pool via REUTERS
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As a former investment banker and France’s self-dubbed “Jupiterian” president, Emmanuel Macron isn’t necessarily someone who comes across as in touch with the plight of the common man. In fact, his political opposition has tried to paint him as “the president of the rich.” Now his recent exchange with an out-of-work man is making waves on social media, with analysts saying (link in French) that it makes Macron look disconnected from the daily reality of unemployed French youth.

On Sunday (Sept. 15), a 25-year-old unemployed horticulturist named Jonathan Jahan approached Macron during a visit to the presidential palace. He told the president that he had been looking for a job for months, had registered at Pôle Emploi, the government’s employment agency, and had sent out his resume to multiple companies, with no luck. Macron answered: “If you are ready and motivated, in the hotel industry, in cafés, restaurants, in construction, there is not a place where I go where I don’t get told, ‘We are looking for people.'” He then told Jahan, “If I cross the street right now, I will find you a job.”

Critics say Macron, a president who has made the modernization of French labor laws a major part of his presidency, should have a better solution for an unemployed agricultural worker than to tell him to go work in construction. Moreover, Macron’s response undersells the difficulty that young people have in finding good jobs in France.

While the French economy is improving, the outlook for young people isn’t good. The last available figures from the Ministry of Work, from the second quarter of 2017, show a youth unemployment rate of 22.3% (pdf), and an overall unemployment rate of 9.1%. That’s higher than the European average of 8.3% (link in French), as well as most euro zone countries.

Macron’s view that there are jobs available for anyone who goes through the trouble of looking is not necessarily borne out by data, which shows that many barriers remain to entry into the labor market–especially for young people. Part of the problem, according to the Financial Times, lies in France’s ”two-tier system,” in which “longstanding employees on so-called permanent contracts enjoy too many protections, while new entrants to the labour market—who are disproportionately likely to be young, female or immigrant—struggle to gain a foothold.”

Telling a horticulturist to find a job as a waiter isn’t a long-term solution to youth unemployment in France. And while the construction (links in French) and hospitality sectors are booming, that’s not the case for other sectors, where the demand for low-skilled workers has virtually disappeared because of automation. That is the case for horticulture, according to Julien Legrix, director of the National Federation of Growers (FNPHP).

“The field of horticulture has really, really changed, what with automation and all of the new technologies for greenhouse production,” Legrix tells Quartz. “It’s no longer as linear as it once was.” François Félix, also of the FNPHP, told French newspaper Le Figaro that in seven years, 5,000 jobs have disappeared in horticulture. “The difficulties of this young man (…) represent a reality for our sector,” he lamented.

In addition, the French labor market is one where the demand doesn’t always fit the supply. Burdensome labor regulations disproportionately impact sectors that rely on seasonal workers–like agriculture–and high operating costs make French farmers less competitive than their Spanish or Belgian neighbors.

Unemployment is also a painful and long process for many people, and usually requires more than crossing the street to shake free of the problem. The average unemployed person looks for a job for 388 days, according to French government data.

Macron has laid out a plan (link in French) to tackle the issue of unemployment,which includes promoting job training for low-skilled workers. But at a time when Macron’s popularity ratings are already in free fall, his seemingly cavalier response isn’t doing the president’s public image any favors. As Jahan said when he was interviewed after his exchange with Macron, “I wanted to tell him: In that case, come with me to look for [a job]!”