Editor : David Thomas
Translator : Pierre Thomas
This article is product of the project My Europe.
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As set up by the French government in 2006, the volunteer civil service might well become compulsory. But many people speak up denouncing a political takeover of this scheme and a massive way of precariousness for young people. This is where things stand in a debate opened about fifteen years ago and which is likely to start again.
Ten years after the military service was repealed in 1997 during Jacques Chirac’s tenure, the volunteer civil service was enforced in France. This scheme was prepared by Martin Hirsh who was to become president of the agency of civil service set up to drive the measure during Nicolas Sarkozy’s tenure. As Luc Ferry, minister for education from 2001 to 2004, sees it, “there is no more republican melting-pot, no more social blending, no more authority in the better sense of the word. The young have a feeling that there are only rights and no more duties.”. In order to address this lack, the government wanted to encourage young citizens to commit themselves into projects stimulating for themselves and useful for common interest. But many saw there above all a political diversion, enabling to extinguish the crisis in the suburbs while reassuring public opinion.
Join the service?
The enactment of compulsory volunteering has been contemplated since the early 2000’s. Members of parliament – government and opposition alike – have repeatedly laid bills, to not avail so far. The project was part of the platforms of the main parties in the presidential election of 2007, and that should be so again in 2012. As early as in 2005, Max Armamet, editor in weekly La Vie, published a “call for a compulsory civil service” endorsed by many personalities like Edgar Morin, Jacques Attali, Bernard Kouchner, l’Abbé Pierre as well as 470 m.p.s and a score of thousand anonymous people.
From then on this lobby influenced public debate and the candidates, left wing and right wing alike, to the French presidential election which Nicolas Sarkozy finally carried off. This year, Jean-François Copé U.M.P. (governmental party) general secretary, suggests making this civil service compulsory: four months long, it would be designed for all young people aged 18 to 26, with a monthly salary of 350€. As he sees it, such a scheme would enable to give back a set of values to young people losing their bearings so as to recreate the social contract and that “ethnic withdrawal and the clash of generations” through “community organization and citizenlike commitment”. A vast platform.
Practically the compulsory service would fall into two parts: « a common stock of a fortnight to implement a spell of social blending dedicated to citizenship and in the course of which each young person would define his or her personal project”. Then the service as it is meant today would start with its “missions of public service”. It is to be noted that it will be possible for young workers to “split” the civil service. In Sylvain Martini’s opinion, in charge of youth for Leo Lagrange federation of popular education, the duration of the volunteer spell proves to be “very insufficient”. Furthermore as the remuneration offered by M. Copé is inferior to allowances gotten nowadays, the proposal would only “increase young people’s precariousness”. Although he is in favor of compulsory service, Sylvain Martini stresses a difference all the same in this step : “M. Copé proposal, alas, looks more like a measure of compensation ; his postulate is based on a negative analysis of youth, while for us the question of civil service relies on the acknowledgement that the young are individuals with a full capacity of action, eager to commit themselves, but prevented by the functioning of society from doing so, being aware of it or having the means of it.”
A European debate
In 2006 the French senate published a synthesis memo about the compulsory civil service in western European countries. What comes out of it is the fact that among the countries which have repealed the military service none has set up a compulsory civil service. The possibility is frequently looked at in Belgium, Italy or the Netherlands, other countries like Spain, Ireland, Portugal or the United Kingdom haven’t even opened the debate. Germany is the only country where the civil service is compulsory but only for these citizens who refuse the military service. However, young people’s volunteering within the scope of community organization is encouraged everywhere. In other words, although the development of civil sense and better fitting into society in young people seem to be concerns common to all those countries, none has chosen yet to address them through a compulsory civil service.
The case for compulsory service is important: blending of populations, field-training, commitment into collective life, social cohesion, respect, republican values, etc. Nevertheless many criticize the initiative. And among them, ranking highest Martin Hirsh evokes in a column published in the Figaro in 2011 three main reasons: first the measure is far too costly for the state, secondly it’s impossible to find enough missions for all the young in the same age group, and lastly it is tantamount to mass precariousness for young people who are forced to accept this “under-employment”. Indeed it seems difficult to come up with 600,000 posts for all the young in the same age group. And even if this were possible, the risk to encroach upon regular employment is quite real, and it is liable to provoke an economic catastrophe and the spreading of young people’s precariousness. Eventually, the estimated cost of the scheme would amount to 1,8 billion €. That is a big sum in this time of budgetary rigor, even though as Sylvain Martini points out: “this is still far too little when the point is to invest for youth and therefore upon the future”. Luc Ferry too utters reservations in his interview to Le Monde: “to an authoritarian integration pattern, I prefer a pattern based on generosity on the will that a commitment should make sense: a will cannot square with constraint, for them it would no longer mean anything. You cannot call upon someone’s generosity when they are forced to do something. This contradiction is insuperable.”
Young people from rural and urban estates
Of course it is not making civil service compulsory which entails most reactions, but rather the implementation of the measure. The stumbling block of current volunteer service lies in the people concerned by the scheme. Today, 10,000 to 15,000 young people aged 18 to 26 commit themselves into social networks or public institutions. François Fillon foresees 25,000 for 2012.
Now, as Sylvain Martini says: “too few people from rural areas or urban housing estates take part in the scheme. Making the civil service compulsory would enable at least to get over that. I am convinced that a compulsory civil service would be a tremendous lever for the commitment of many more young people. (…) That is the scheme yet to be optimized, which must favor real social blending and enhance better living as a community. Therefore it can only be understood if it applies to all young people living in French territory.” The 2010 act of parliament setting up volunteer civil service schedules an appraisal of the scheme at the end of 2011, so as to reexamine the opportunity to make it compulsory or not. So, a case to be followed.
. Luc Ferry, Le monde, 2008
. Le Point, 2011
. Interview of Sylvain Martini, August 2011
. Survey of comparative legislation n° 168 – December 2006 – Compulsory civil service. Service of legal studies of French Senate.
. Column published in Le Figaro », June 2011