It’s hard to be 21 in 2021

Youth unemployment, mental health issues and university closures challenge French politicians

France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, was right when he said that “it’s hard to be 20 in 2020”. And as the pandemic intensifies, it appears that it’s going to be hard to be 21 in 2021, too.

In November 2020, just over one in five young people in France were without a job. For students who graduated this summer following five years of university education, almost half have been unable to secure employment. In comparison, three-quarters of students who graduated in 2018 had been able to find a job within six months of completing their degree.

The French government has, however, launched an initiative to hand out up to €500 per month to unemployed graduates. Additionally, the €7 billion 1 Jeune, 1 Solution [One Young Person, One Solution] programme, which started in July 2020, gives a €4,000 indemnity to companies when they recruit a young person.

The situation may be worse for young people with fewer qualifications, who are generally at a higher risk of unemployment. Pre-Covid, French people whose highest qualification was the brevet – equivalent to English GCSEs – were far more likely to be unemployed than those who had more qualifications. Given that the overall unemployment rate for young people increased by 10 percent between November 2019 and November 2020, an increase in the unemployment rate for young people with fewer skills could be expected.

The 1 Jeune, 1 Solution scheme has also targeted individuals who are less likely to hold qualifications from higher education institutions. Politicians are giving companies €5,000 incentives when they take on an apprentice under 18 years of age and €8,000 when hiring an adult apprentice. The government programme also directs young people towards entry-level positions in growing digital, environmental and industrial sectors, as well as placements in France’s Service civique (National Citizen Service).

Talk of a third lockdown

A possible réconfinement [new lockdown] could, however, add to the challenges faced by young people. If France is locked down once more, politicians may have to extend existing measures in order to support young people as they navigate the likely economic fallout.

Would the 1 Jeune, 1 Solution hire scheme be drawn out until the summer? Despite the fact that over 250,000 aforementioned hire-help requests had been granted as of mid-January, many young people remain in precarious positions.

The government is also under pressure from opposition MPs to extend RSA (social security) to young people between the ages of 18 and 25. Both the centre-left Parti socialiste (PS) and centre-right Les Républicains (LR), whose profiles may continue to grow as the 2022 presidential election approaches, have pushed for this.

The government has floated the idea of a “young capital” programme available to those between 18 and 25. One government minister said that this would come as a no-interest loan of €10,000 which could be paid back over a long-term period. Yet, despite the fact that students would only be asked to pay the loan back after starting to earn €1,800 in gross income, this would be a heavy financial restriction in the long term.

University students: the “forgotten ones”?

Politicians must also urgently reassure students that they will not be the among “les oubliés” [the forgotten ones] of Covid-19. This was the term used by worried students at a protest in Lyon on 20 January.

A handful of students say they “can’t stand isolation any longer” and are asking for higher education institutions to be reopened. For many, keeping universities closed whilst schools are kept open seems contradictory.

Furthermore, according to the Commission d’enquête (Inquiry Committee) of France’s lower house, the Assemblée nationale, one in six students has dropped out and more than half have mental health concerns.

In response, the government allowed face-to-face tutorials for first-year students to restart from Monday 25 January and has announced that students will be able to attend face-to-face classes for a maximum of one day per week.

But could a possible new lockdown in France threaten the plans? Adopting the “en même temps” [on the other hand] narrative which has become a trademark of the Macron administration, Frédérique Vidal, Minister for Higher Education, said that the partial return would take place “except if there is an enormous health catastrophe with a full lockdown”.

It’s a catch-22 situation for the French government: either keep the universities open and run the risk of the virus spreading among young people or close them and see a potentially sharp rise in mental health issues.

Solving this conundrum will be complicated. Mr Macron and Mr Castex have demonstrated their keenness to reach out to students in recent days. The escalating gravity of the situation means that politicians must continue to interact with students delicately. But if students feel that the situation isn’t improving, then they may continue to take to the streets.

Can the government keep young people on its side?

The stakes are highn as the French government’s response to issues concerning young people may weigh heavily upon its popularity ahead of the 2022 presidential election.

A poll carried out by Odoxa-Dentsu for Le Figaro and franceinfo in early December 2020 showed that 49 percent of young people aged between 18 and 24 approved of President Macron’s management of the coronavirus crisis.

There are signs, however, that the popularity of France’s leaders is falling. A poll carried out by the Institut français d’opinion publique (IFOP) for Le Journal du Dimanche just before Christmas demonstrated that 60 percent of young people were “disappointed” with Mr Macron and 59 percent with Mr Castex.

Managing the economic and social implications of Covid-19 for young people is a complicated issue with which any government would struggle. But can Mr Macron keep France’s more youthful citizens on his side as the media begins to turn towards the 2022 election?

The president has made significant efforts to engage with young people through policy and discussion recently. His December interview with journalists from Brut boosted his visibility, and continuing engagement with social media influencers will be crucial in coming months.

Yet the government ought to beware an increasingly effervescent opposition. Candidates from PS and LR have been particularly vocal on issues concerning young people only 18 months away from the presidential election.

As the number of Covid-19 cases in France continues to rise, hopefully it will be much easier to be 22 in 2022.

Photo Nikolay Georgiev on Pixabay.

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